When Janet Reno was tapped to become the next attorney general, more than one Washington wag noted that her greatest strength lay in the fact that she had no children -- and hence no child-care worries. President Clinton's first two choices as the nation's top cop, corporate attorney Zoe Baird and federal Judge Kimba M. Wood, had withdrawn their names from consideration under intense scrutiny of their real or perceived violations of laws concerning their child-care workers.
But it soon became clear that Reno, a 54-year-old Florida prosecutor, had far more to offer than a nanny-proof record. During her 15-year career as top prosecutor for Dade County, which includes Miami, Reno has gained a reputation for fairness among her sprawling jurisdiction's diverse racial and ethnic communities.
She also is known as a tough prosecutor in one of the nation's most active drug markets. During her March 10 Senate confirmation hearing, Reno promised that her main emphasis as attorney general would be “attacking violent crime, drug trafficking and public corruption.”
But aggressive prosecution of drug dealers is only one of Reno's weapons in the fight against drugs. She also has captured drug-policy reformers' attention with an innovative program she introduced in 1989 to deal with first-time offenders. Like many other high-crime areas, Dade County has seen its courts and jails overwhelmed by cases involving the sale or possession of illegal drugs. To alleviate overcrowding, and to remove many drug offenders from the criminal justice system altogether, Reno set up a separate “drug court.”
The trail-blazing court offers first-time offenders who are convicted of non-violent drug violations the chance to undergo drug treatment as an alternative to the jail terms they normally would receive. “The basic premise,” says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research and advocacy group in Washington, D.C., “is that the main actors in the court system have come together and decided they would rather have people with a drug problem in treatment rather than process them through the criminal justice system.”
Reno's Dade County Drug Court is not without its critics. Terry Eastland, a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, contends that repeat offenders, some of them implicated in violent crimes, have managed to infiltrate the court, tarnishing its previously glowing track record. Soon after the program started, he reports, 90 percent of offenders who completed treatment had no subsequent arrests, but the drug court's success rate later sank to 60 percent.#
Mauer, who calls the court “a very interesting model,” concedes that it has weaknesses. “The program claims very good success in terms of recidivism for those who complete the program, although -- not unlike any other drug program -- you get a very high dropout rate. Essentially, if you look at all the people in the program on day one, a rather small proportion are still there a year later, but the ones who are still there a year later do very well. They stay off drugs, and they don't commit new crimes.”
Reno's effort to distinguish between violent drug dealers and non- violent offenders is unusual for a prosecutor, especially an elected prosecutor whose effectiveness is judged in part by the number of convictions won. “As a prosecutor,” Mauer says, “the fact that she's thinking about solutions other than incarceration as a part of our response to crime is a very encouraging, very creative approach.”
About 25 jurisdictions have followed Dade County's approach to coping with the crush of drug cases. In the South Bronx, one of New York City's most drug-ridden neighborhoods, the new El Rio program serves young crack addicts who are sent there by the courts. Program participants live at home but must spend every day at the center for supervision and counseling on drug abuse, exercise, nutrition and family issues. “At El Rio, they are saying that for a lot of these people the drug problem is only symptomatic of a lot of problems in their lives,” Mauer says.
Mauer predicts that more cities will adopt the Dade County Drug Court approach. “If they can do it in Miami, given the level of the drug and crime problems they have there, it would be hard for people in Toledo to say they couldn't do it there,” he says. # See Terry Eastland, “Attorney General and Social Worker,” The Wall Street Journal, March 10, 1993.