Justice Nominee Reno Offers New Priorities ADMINISTRATION TAKES SHAPE

Article excerpt

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.

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."

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. …