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Reno urges new look at halting drugs


WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno, whose department oversees several key combatants in the nation's war on drugs, suggested yesterday that the millions spent trying to stem the flow of illegal narcotics into the country may not be cost-effective.

"I think it's time that we start and come up with hard data that deals with this issue of whether or not interdiction is efficient and effective," Ms. Reno told a conference of national drug policy experts, law enforcement officials and treatment specialists.

Ms. Reno, who as a South Florida prosecutor backed an innovative court diversion program for drug offenders, also advocated a "carrot and stick" approach to drug treatment that relies on court sanctions to keep drug offenders in line. But she made it clear that defendants who do not perform will go "right back in jail pretty quick."

Ms. Reno, who as the nation's chief law enforcement officer administers $5 billion in drug enforcement funds, touched on subjects from interdiction to the plight of America's children.

She cited remarks by federal officials, who a decade ago "pointed out that to have any impact on drugs in America, you would have to interdict 75 percent [of the drugs entering the country], and that would be economically prohibitive."

"I have always been struck by those conclusions," said Ms. Reno, who said at best interdiction efforts catch 25 percent of the drugs entering the country illegally.

The attorney general also repeated her decision to examine mandatory minimum sentencing policies that have been criticized as unduly harsh in their treatment of first-time drug offenders. And, she said she is reviewing the federal prison system population to determine the kinds of criminals taking up bed space there.

Ms. Reno said she was surprised to learn from the federal Bureau of Prisons that nearly 26 percent of the more than 76,000 federal prisoners are persons who were illegally in this country.

Ms. Reno discouraged efforts to "federalize" more crimes just because federal sentences may be stiffer or prison beds more plentiful. She said she wants to ensure that low-level federal drug offenders are not serving more time than dangerous career criminals who are sent to state prisons. She proposed creating a pool of prison cells that could be shared between local and federal governments.

Local governments are better able to prosecute drug abusers because their programs are more adept at reintegrating an offender into the community "as soon as possible," she said.

"This nation has got to make sure that every person in America who wants drug treatment, who's asking for it, who's on a waiting list, gets it," said Ms. Reno.

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