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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Janet Reno : The Blunt Attorney General Speaks Her Mind--as Usual

<i> Ronald J. Ostrow covers the Justice Department for The Times. He interviewed Janet Reno in her office at the Justice Department</i>

In her first weeks here, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno confided to friends that Washington dinner parties left her hungry. Too much conversation about personalities and too little of substance. That’s no longer the case, she says, which may signal that her hosts have grasped what kind of guest they’ve asked to dinner.

President Bill Clinton seems to have lucked out on his third choice to become the nation’s first woman attorney general. Aside from taking responsibility with uncharacteristic--for Washington--speed and forthrightness after the FBI’s Waco action that ended in a fiery disaster, Reno, 54, has converted 15 years as the Dade County, Fla., state attorney into a wellspring for new approaches to preventing crime. She is trying to shift the nation’s focus to alternatives to jailing first- or second-time drug offenders and to dealing with the causes of crime. All without drawing sustained conservative criticism for renewing the root-cause emphasis last heard during the Great Society.

But Reno’s full platter--ranging from failed immigration policies to unprecedented violent crime--could cut into her popularity if the long-term approach she advocates doesn’t produce results by the 1994 midterm elections.

Reno’s no stranger to public acclaim turning into hostility--and vice versa. Two years after becoming Florida’s first woman state attorney, her office lost a major case against four Miami police officers charged with beating a black insurance man to death during a traffic stop--a verdict that touched off three days of rioting and protests aimed at her. But she’s also hailed in a rap song that praises the pressure she brought on dead-beat child supporters.

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Reno, 6 feet, 2 inches in her stocking feet, often stands throughout meetings. She delivers addresses with matter-of-fact earnestness, but during one-on-one conversations, her volume drops so a listener must strain to hear every word.

In speeches, Reno invariably speaks of her mother, who died last December, a blunt, self-sufficient woman who built their house and schooled the kids in everything from Beethoven to baseball, and of her late father’s experience as a Danish immigrant who became a police reporter for the Miami Herald. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Reno was turned down, because she was a woman, by the law firm that hired her 14 years later as a partner. She refers to this without bitterness, but with a jaw-jutting resolve that declares such discrimination should not be tolerated.

Recent polls show Reno still possesses the political savvy she demonstrated in winning reelection five times as a Florida state attorney. Clearly the star of the Cabinet, her job-approval rating runs about 67%, while Clinton’s is at 42%.

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Question: Many crime-prevention proposals you advance, such as strengthening families, sound like proposals from the Great Society--yet crime has continued to increase, particularly violent crime. Why would this root-cause emphasis work better now than it apparently did then?

Answer: I’ve never heard of comprehensive programs that provided a balance between punishment and prevention. I think one of the keys to any crime-prevention program that’s got to be developed is to focus on punishment--to let people know that there is a sanction and a punishment for hurting others. Juveniles as well as adults need to know they’re going to be punished for their violent acts.

What has too often happened in the past is that people have threatened punishment but have failed to carry it out. It’s imperative in any initiative that is undertaken that punishment be real and that there be truth in sentencing, and that the truly dangerous offenders--the recidivists and the career criminals--be put away and kept away.

At the same time, I think we need to provide for the very young a comprehensive program that understands that you have got to provide for a strong and healthy start for infants; that you’ve got to focus on teen pregnancy, and make sure that our parents are old enough, wise enough and financially able enough to take care of their children themselves. That you have got to provide preventive health care for our children.

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I think the balance of a program that punishes when punishment is due, and punishes fairly and with certainty, combined with a prevention program that understands you cannot prevent just by one initiative, but that you have to provide a child with a chance throughout his or her childhood to grow into a strong, constructive human being--those programs can work and I don’t think we’ve tried them before.

Q: While you’re talking about importance of prenatal care, you’ve got probably the biggest agenda of any recent attorney general. You have problems with immigration, you’ve got the drug program not being up to what many had hoped, you’ve got prisons over capacity. Is there a danger you might be biting off more than you can chew?

A: I think it’s important for all Americans to look at the whole picture--to understand that drugs are a symptom of a deeper problem in society. Part of the best way to deal with the problem of drugs is to raise strong and healthy children in a family setting with family supervision--and programs that can provide supervision to keep them from getting into trouble in the first place.

One of the best things that we can do in terms of preventing drug abuse is by developing better programs in the schools. There are things that we can do to prevent children from getting into violence--to develop programs in the schools.

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One of the problems in America is that everybody focuses on their own narrow little bit of the problem without connecting punishment and prevention together, without connecting the schools and the police together, without connecting the pediatricians and the social workers together. When we all start working together in one cooperative effort, punish when punishment’s due, preventing when we can, we’ll make much better use of the limited dollars we have.

Q: You were a strong supporter of Doris Meissner’s for immigration commissioner. She was in the Immigration and Naturalization Service when some policies now being questioned were put into place. What about criticism that she was part of the problem and you need somebody with a fresher approach?

A: I think she understands problems of immigration. I don’t think she can speak for the people who were her bosses. I think she understands the dimension of the problems facing the Immigration and Naturalization Service. She knows the desperate need involved in truly upgrading it, putting it on a par with law enforcement and diplomatic initiatives, and in coming to grips with the issues that face us as a nation. That’s how to balance the tradition of immigration with the burdens that immigration places on our hospitals, on our schools, on our prisons.

Q: Is there anything you bring from your Florida experience that might be useful?

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A: I bring an understanding of how immigration can provide tremendous strength to a community, but also bring tremendous burdens. I have been a prosecutor in a criminal-justice system that was tremendously impacted in the early ‘80s by immigration policies of the United States government. I have watched Dade Public Hospital stagger to meet the needs placed on it; the public-school system absorb a tremendous number of children. It’s important that we develop a clear understanding between the federal and state governments as to whose legitimate responsibility it is to care for those for whom we provide asylum--whose legitimate responsibility it is to care for illegal aliens in prisons. And we will be working with Mrs. Meissner and others to try to make appropriate recommendations on how to do that.

Q: Does that indicate there might be a federal effort to lighten the burden now on the states that touch the border?

A: The important thing is to provide an orderly procedure whereby the states will receive appropriate assistance. The states are legitimately concerned because they don’t know what to expect when they suddenly have a wave of new immigrants come to their shores. We have to develop procedures and mechanisms so that everybody assumes their appropriate burden based on the principles of federalism.

Q: In the past, you’ve noted the fragility of popular acclaim--and that it’s not something you’re depending on for adoption of a program. Do you have some explanation for what kind of acclaim you’re receiving?

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A: I don’t know. I’m touched. It’s been very heartwarming for me. It fills me with a great desire not to disappoint people. But I have also, as I’ve said to you in the past, been in public office where at times I have been very unpopular, and at times been very popular. I know there will be times when the American people may criticize me. But I’m doing my best to let them know that whatever I do, I’m going to try to do because I tried to thoughtfully consider what the right thing to do was--and tried to do it. I think it was Harry Truman who said, “It’s easy to do the right thing. It’s very hard, sometimes, to know what the right thing to do is.”

Q: Do you have any interest in running for higher office?

A: No, I made a promise to myself when I became the state attorney of Dade County that I would never think a day beyond about any political future, and that I would only determine to run for reelection when I really had to--because somebody was talking about running against me. For everything that I have done in public service, it’s been based upon the fact that I had no higher political ambition. That’s helped me make a judgment as to what the right thing to do was, regardless of the political consequences.

Q: Do you have any interest in being in the judiciary, say on the Supreme Court?

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A: No. I swore one time I would never be a prosecutor--so I can’t say that I will never do it. But I have enjoyed the opportunity and the positions that I’ve held--to be an activist for what I believe in--and I think the role of the judiciary does not sometimes permit the advocacy that I think is important.

Q: You have said that despite your personal opposition to the death penalty, you feel secure in enforcing the law as it’s on the books. Does your personal opposition give you any problem in supporting legislation that would broaden the death penalty, add it to more federal crimes?

A: No. I have followed the lead of the Administration in terms of how it would like to broaden the death penalty. One of the most frustrating experiences for me as a prosecutor was to seek the death penalty and the court impose it--and then have these horribly long delays involved in carrying it out. I think if you’re going to have a penalty it should be carried out as swiftly as possible consistent with justice. I think it’s important for all prosecutors who ask for the death penalty to speak out as to procedures that are necessary to ensure that there won’t be legal attacks that drag it out.

Q: And you don’t feel that because of your personal opposition you should try and talk the President out of it--try and change his mind, the Administration’s mind on capital punishment?

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A: One of the things that I’ve always thought that you could do is state your position, (then) carry out the law. There are a number of things about government and life that I disagree with, but it doesn’t mean that I withdraw from the fray, and I think that if I’m going to, it’s my belief, something that I personally believe in, I will continue to state my opposition, but I will continue to uphold the law.

Q: You objected, or expressed concern, when the White House contacted the FBI directly on the travel office matter, and you’ve stopped short of fully endorsing the concept of 100,000 new police on the streets of the nation’s cities, provided by the federal government. Do these positions put you in danger of being regarded as not a team player?

A: . . . The President of the United States didn’t hire me to be a loyal soldier. He hired me to be a lawyer for the people. I think what he wants is my best advice and my best cautions.

With respect to the 100,000 police officers, I would like very much to be able to achieve 100,000 police officers on our streets, but I want to make sure that it’s done in a way in which it can truly and consistently support local law enforcement and done with an expectation of some continuity--done with an expectation that the support would mean something. And I think working together with the White House and local law enforcement and mayors and county commissioners and sheriffs, we can work together to put together a package that may well reach 100,000 people. But I just want to make sure that it’s sound, that it’s well thought out and that it achieves the purpose.

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