Attorney General Janet Reno told Marylanders yesterday that "America has too often forgotten its children" and will never halt violent crime without placing more value on good parenting.
"We've got to get to these kids before they become entrenched in the path to delinquency," said Ms. Reno, who spoke to about 1,000 people at the Governor's Crime Summit at Coppin State College. "We won't have enough dollars to deal with [them] if we wait until they are a delinquent."
Ms. Reno, 54, who is single and has no children, said that even subtle changes -- such as employers granting parents more flexible hours, as well as maternity and paternity leaves -- can help to reverse society's growing neglect of children.
"People need to be more accepting [of the job parents have to do] and enable us to be home with our children," she said.
She received a standing ovation before and after her speech, from an audience composed mainly of criminal-justice professionals attending the two-day summit.
A former Florida prosecutor who backed an innovative court-diversion program for drug offenders, Ms. Reno said bold strategies are needed to combat the nation's drug problem. She described the "war on drugs" as being mostly ineffective and failing to deal with the root of the problem.
"It makes no sense to put someone in prison for three years and leave them there with a drug problem, only to let them out one day and say, 'God be with you,' " she said. "That doesn't work."
Ms. Reno is currently examining mandatory minimum-sentencing policies that have been criticized by some as being unduly harsh on first-time drug offenders.
Perhaps a better approach, she said, is to put convicted drug offenders on a type of supervised probation in group homes that they would be responsible for maintaining. Any violations would result in the offender being sent to prison, she said.
The criminals who go on to be repeat offenders should be given lengthy prison sentences and be required to complete them, something that does not happen enough now, she said.
In Maryland, inmates serve roughly 61 percent of their prison sentences before being released; the national average is about 41 percent to 45 percent, according to correctional officials.
"We have got to have truth in sentencing. We've got to mean what we say," Ms. Reno said. "Incapacitation is the best way to prevent future crime. If you threaten punishment and don't carry it out, then that's worse than not having punishment at all."
At the end of her speech, Maryland's state police superintendent, Col. Larry W. Tolliver, proclaimed Ms. Reno "an honorary trooper" and gave her a trooper's hat, which she wore and tipped to the crowd as she left the auditorium stage.
Ms. Reno's comments on the effect of child-rearing on crime capsulized the summit's theme of "What is the root cause of crime." Most of the workshops throughout the past two days dealt with why youths turn into violent criminals.
"The main message we got here is that locking people up is not going to prevent crime. There has to be participation from everyone," said John Lang, special assistant to Bishop L. Robinson, state secretary of public safety and correctional services.
Among the facts about Maryland crime brought out at the summit:
* Violent crimes, such as rape, robbery and murder, have increased by 40 percent in the past 18 years.
* The rate of property crimes per 100,000 residents has remained unchanged.
* Seventy percent of Maryland residents believe crime is a very serious problem; 51 percent are willing to pay $100 more in taxes to build more prisons.
* Maryland ranks eighth in the nation in prisoners per capita (358 per 100,000 residents.)
* The state's prison population has more than doubled in 12 years, from 8,300 in 1980 to more than 20,000 in 1992.
A "master plan" of suggestions and comments from the summit will be drafted at an unspecified time, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a public safety spokesman.
"This has been the easy part. The hard part is coming up with the master plan," Mr. Sipes said. "It's easy to say you've got to intervene early. The question is how."
The summit drew criticism from some who felt it was too general in scope and didn't target specific ways to deal with crime.
"What we've heard here from state officials is, 'Don't expect too much from us.' But I think we are entitled as people to expect the government to prevent crime, or at least take a shot at it," said Frank M. Dunbaugh, an attorney and editor of the Just Line newsletter. The publication carries articles on criminal law and corrections news.
Mr. Dunbaugh said the governor should appoint a crime-prevention "minister" to oversee the state's efforts in studying crime and what can be done to prevent it.