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Justice Nominee Reno Offers New Priorities


THE United States Justice Department is likely to be a very different place if Janet Reno is confirmed as attorney general.

Friends, colleagues, and sometime adversaries of the Dade County, Fla., prosecutor - who was nominated by President Clinton last week to become the nation's top law-enforcement officer - say that she will bring a tough, no-nonsense management style to a department that has been drifting in recent months.

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What's more, her priorities are likely to differ considerably from those of her Republican predecessors, who placed strong emphasis on doling out long prison sentences for violent and drug-related crimes.

"She's going to put a higher priority on programs to divert [youthful and first-time] offenders out of the criminal justice system, on environmental protection, and civil rights enforcement, but she'll be pretty tough on habitual criminals," says H. T. Smith, a Miami defense attorney who has known Ms. Reno for two decades. "You'll see a clear separation between the Clinton Justice Department and the Reagan-Bush era."

There may be more than policy differences between the Democratic and Republican Justice Departments, however. Many liberal attorneys charge - and some current and former Justice officials confirm - that the department was unduly "politicized" during the Republican tenure.

In his statement nominating Reno, Mr. Clinton called the Reagan-Bush years a period of "controversy and abuse" and pledged to bring "a sense of pride, integrity, and new energy to that agency."

Associates of Reno, whose Senate confirmation hearings have not been scheduled yet, say she is well-qualified to accomplish those goals.

"What Justice needs is a straight-talker, and that's Janet's personality," says Mark Schnapp, a former assistant US attorney in Miami who worked closely with Reno. "She's very direct, to the point, she has no hidden agenda.... She really brings a sense of integrity that's beyond question."

Mr. Schnapp adds, "Once she's in place you'll see an immediate turnaround in morale."

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One of the earliest changes that Reno will make in the Justice Department, her friends say, will be to increase cooperation between various federal agencies and local law-enforcement authorities.

As Dade County's state attorney for 15 years, Reno often cooperated with federal prosecutors in several cases cross-designating her attorneys to work on US cases. Successful drug court

Another priority for Reno may be replicating at the national level some of the law-enforcement approaches she tried successfully in Dade County. For example, she started an innovative drug court that sends nonviolent, first-time offenders, many of them children, to counseling rather than jail.

"She's tough on jail sentences for serious and violent offenders ... but she feels we have to reach children at an early age," says Mayor Seymour Gelber of Miami Beach, a former official in the state attorney's office and juvenile court judge. "She would rather take minor offenders out of the juvenile court system."

Of course, the US Justice Department deals far less with juveniles and petty criminals than the Dade County state attorney's office. But as attorney general, Reno could encourage programs that follow her example through the use of grants that Justice hands out to local law-enforcement agencies.

Reno may also use Justice Department grants to foster new programs to collect child-support payments from "deadbeat dads." The tough approach she developed in Dade County made her a local celebrity and won the gratitude of many families.

Sandy D'Alemberte, a former law partner of Reno, says that a few years ago the state prosecutor was marching in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade when a young black man confronted her. "Are you Reno?" he demanded. She admitted she was. "You sent my father to jail!" the man told her. But then he quickly stuck his hand out and added, "Thanks! He didn't support his family."

While child-support collection is mainly handled at the local level, there are many areas in which Reno could have a direct impact at Justice. One of those is civil rights enforcement, which Democrats believe was neglected by Republican administrations. Civil rights snags

Reno has run into plenty of controversy in the civil rights arena. During the past decade she has dealt with a number of explosive cases involving police beatings of young black men. The acquittal of one police officer in 1980 led to a devastating riot in the Liberty City section of Miami.

In the wake of that riot, some civil-rights leaders have charged that Reno has not been forceful enough in prosecuting police misconduct.

For example, she has been criticized for moving many police brutality cases into the federal courts.

But Mr. Smith, a leader in Miami's black community, contends that Reno would not be reluctant to vigorously prosecute civil-rights cases - even those involving police officers - as attorney general.

"I was one of her strongest critics, but in the past 15 years she's converted me to a strong supporter," he says. "The hiring patterns in her office support her strong commitment to civil rights."

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