Washington. -- Is crime preventable? The country's feisty new attorney general, Janet Reno, believes so. So does Maryann Mahaffey, the grandmotherly president of the Detroit City Council who set up a rape crisis center 18 years ago.
Ms. Mahaffey was one of 300 crime-prevention and law-enforcement leaders in Washington last week for the first-ever National Forum on Preventing Crime and Violence.
And what Attorney General Reno had to tell the group, says Ms. Mahaffey, "was like a new day. Never before have I known an attorney general to lay it out so clearly: that we must reach children at the very earliest age, that we must learn to settle things non-violently, that we must all learn to respect each other as equals."
By any standard, the appearance of the 6-foot-1-inch Ms. Reno, striding confidently onto the stage -- as if the harassing congressional grilling on the Waco disaster the day before had never happened -- was remarkable.
"A national agenda for children," said the nation's chief law-enforcement officer, "will ultimately have more impact on crime than all the prisons that we could ever build."
Reno sketched out an age-by-age strategy for reclaiming children's lives. The chain has to start, she said, with prenatal care and lots of love for newborns: In a hospital's neonatal unit, one can already see the difference in response between an infant loved by its parents, and one who is getting only minimal medical care.
Care at birth then has to be followed with the right child care, preventive medical care and "educare" during the first, formative three years of life.
Violence -- within the family, or at school -- must be combated as "one of the great health epidemics in America," said Ms. Reno.
Parents need flexible work time to spend more hours with their children. And the whole society has to care about latchkey, unsupervised children. Truancy prevention, summer jobs and realistic school-to-work transition programs, and youth service-corps opportunities are all part of the continuum Ms. Reno advocates.
A big goal, she says, is to "break down the barriers" between police and social-service disciplines. She likes the idea, begun in Dade County, of deploying "teams composed of
community-friendly, highly respected police officers, social workers, public-health nurses, community organizers, working full time within a narrow neighborhood."
Even if that intensive treatment isn't practical everywhere, Ms. Reno believes it's time to rethink how police, probation officers and juvenile counselors use their time. Imagine, she says, if more were deployed into affording kids constructive after-school and evening programs, "what we would save in terms of the dollars spent for prisons, spent for prosecution, spent for police officers investigating cases to find out who committed some crime."
Ms. Reno not only stresses the family, teamwork and anti-violence themes to "the choir" of "pro-prevention" audiences, but also to lawyers, cops and prosecutors. This lady's special magic may be her refusal to tailor her message to any audience -- a bluntness right in tune with a woman who grew up in a rough-hewn house built in a swamp where her mother wrestled alligators.
She says: It's time to differentiate between the "mean bads," truly dangerous offenders, "putting them away for as long as we can" -- and simultaneously freeing up prison space through alternative sentencing for non-violent first offenders.
The drug court she set up in Miami showed the way. Non-violent first-time offenders charged with small amounts of drug possession were channeled into treatment programs, while the book was thrown at serious, habitual offenders.
Minimum mandatory sentences need a hard second look, says Ms. Reno: "We've got to appreciate the fact that we can build just so many prisons." The public, she says, needs to know about the high cost of each prison cell.
Janet Reno seems instinctively to believe that there are smart people of good will -- police, judges, social-service workers, neighborhood leaders -- who want to be part of inventing a new system of smarter, more sensitive justice.
"In the 1930s," she told the crime-prevention conference, "the excitement was in Washington. In the 1990s, the excitement is throughout America."
Ms. Reno's difference with the "law-'n'-order, lock-'em-up-and-throw- away-the-key" Republicans who proceeded her is that she wants to change the agenda of the justice system to hit prevention first and then be tough as nails where it's appropriate. She's been in the trenches of urban crime and crisis.
It's a rare commodity in high office, and we better make use of it while we can.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.