VICE STILL THRIVES IN MIAMI, WHERE THE NEW U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL JANET RENO CUT HER TEETH
AMERICA'S TOP COP
VICE STILL THRIVES IN MIAMI, WHERE THE NEW U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL JANET RENO CUT HER TEETH
On a rainy night along Ocean Drive, the signs outside the art-deco hotels still stain the salt-laden air in seductive pastels of neon pink and blue. Further south down Biscayne Bay, speedboats roaring past at full throttle still send flocks of flamingos the color of cooked shrimp into startled flight. And in secretive meetings in safe houses all across Florida’s largest city, men with eyes like ice still deal in death and ecstasy by the kilo and the gram. Miami Vice, the dramatic series that brought those images into millions of homes during the 1980s, long ago disappeared from North American prime-time television. But make no mistake: in Miami, vice is still a thriving business.
That is a disheartening fact for those Americans who harbor hope that the new administration in Washington might be able to stem the daily bloodletting on the nation’s streets. In turning to Miami lawyer Janet Reno to fill the job of U.S. attorney general last month, President Bill Clinton selected as America’s top law-enforcement officer a career prosecutor on whose watch crime rates rose steadily in her racially volatile ju-
risdiction of nearly two-million people. Reno’s preferred focus, says Kathy Rundle, her successor as Florida state attorney in Miami’s Dade County, was “the genesis of violence, where it begins.” To that end, Reno sponsored reforms designed to break the vicious cycles of individual dysfunction and institutional callousness that have long trapped millions of Americans in a downward spiral of crime and imprisonment. If Reno now tries to implement a similar agen-
da in Washington, she is likely to frustrate America’s vocal tough-on-crime lobby. But the 54-year-old, six-foot, two-inch attorney’s penchant for reform might dramatically alter the pitiless face of justice in America.
In taking her leave of Miami early last week, Reno left behind the city of her childhood. She grew up on the fringes of the Everglades in a house built from stone and native pine by her mother, Jane, a harddrinking onetime professional alligator wrestler. Reno has called Miami “a city I love, a city that reflects the diversity, the dreams and the problems of America.” The problems, certainly. Serious crime increased by 25 per cent in Dade County while Reno was its chief law officer during the 1980s, rising more than twice as fast as in the state as a whole.
Much of that toll was clearly beyond the reach of even the most aggressive of prosecutors. During Reno’s tenure, southern Florida reeled from the impact of the continent’s most concentrated drug traffic, violent race riots and successive waves of largely uncontrolled immigration from Cuba, Haiti and South America. By the decade’s end, a wave
of murders that peaked during the so-called cocaine cowboy wars of the late 1970s and early 1980s had subsided. But federal drug agents say that the narcotics traffic that fuelled the violence continues to flourish.
Still, in Miami last week even many former critics applauded Reno for having used her power to do more than merely jail an undiminishing stream of offenders. “We had everything but the Wanted poster out for her in 1980,” Miami attorney and black activist H. T. (Harold) Smith told Maclean’s. “In 1993, she is the heroine of the black community.” Indeed, Reno’s road to judicial reform began amid the anger and ashes left by a convulsive outbreak of racial violence sparked by circumstances that are now eerily familiar. The acquittal of four white policemen in May, 1980, on charges arising from the I beating death of a 33-year-old
1 black insurance salesman set off
2 rioting in black neighborhoods of Miami that lasted for three days.
By the time the violence had ebbed, 16 people had been beaten or shot to death, hundreds of businesses were destroyed and 3,800 National Guardsmen patrolled 240 smouldering city blocks. In the shocked aftermath, Smith and other black leaders demanded Reno’s resignation. She refused.
The epicentre of the fury in Miami’s Liberty City district still bears testimony to the losses. At the corner of 54th Street and 27th Avenue, weedand litter-choked vacant lots surround Tiny’s Liquors, a bunker-like, concrete-block store painted vivid green that is the intersection’s only surviving business. But nearby are a new library and a strikingly modern community centre. And among Miami’s blacks, the intense distrust of the police and the judicial system that inflamed the riots of 1980 has faded somewhat. ‘The police is all right,” said Spooky Jones, 50, passing time with friends one morning last week in front of a Liberty City market. Added 20-year-old Charlene Harris: “They better than they was 10 years ago.”
One reason for the more conciliatory mood is a series of prosecutions that Reno’s office brought against white police officers accused of using excessive violence against blacks. “A lot of people would not have taken the political risk of prosecuting,” said Smith. “A lot of people in the black community respected that.” Last April, when the acquittal of four white policemen on charges of beating black Los Angeles motorist Rodney King set off deadly riots there and in other cities from Atlanta to Las Vegas, Miami remained calm.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, Reno advocated a new approach to the prosecutor’s traditional mission, one best described as preven-
tive crime-fighting. She based her case on two perceptions. The first was that the threat of imprisonment had long ceased to be an effective deterrent to crime. The drug-drenched streets of south Florida, where guns are freely available, simply served up offenders in numbers far too large for the courts to cope with, producing a growing number of plea-bargains and shortened sentences. The second insight, which many observers of the gridlock in Miami’s courts also came to share, was that the only hope for relief lay in changing the social and personal conditions that lead people to commit crimes.
In one form or another, the reforms that Reno championed during the past eight years have all been directed towards achieving that difficult goal. In 1985, she gave Rundle, then one of her four chief assistant state attorneys, approval to establish a division within the office dedicated solely to prosecuting men who abuse wives or girlfriends—and to counselling their victims. The following year, Reno’s office took over responsibility for enforcing child-support orders against delinquent fathers in the county. The task now occupies a staff of more than 300 people, who collected $42 million last year on behalf of 173,000 single parents.
Then, in 1989, Reno encouraged Dade court officials to assign a judge to hear only cases involving first-time drug offenders (page 21). She also gave prosecutors wide leeway to drop charges if defendants successfully completed a drug-treatment program. After four years of presiding over the increasingly popular drug court, Judge Stanley Goldstein, who at first expressed deep skepticism about the approach, has become its most ardent advocate. The plainspoken former policeman says that more than 60 per cent of those who enter his court remain drugand arrest-free two years later. “They’re working, they’re paying taxes, they’re raising families,” said Goldstein. “What more do you want?”
The innovative drug court also helped Reno catch the eye of future President Clinton. Among the public defenders assigned to Goldstein’s court is Hugh Rodham, the brother of Hillary Rodham Clinton. While still governor of Arkansas, Clinton on several occasions took advantage of visits to Miami to observe Goldstein’s court in action.
Reno extended her office’s pioneering approach to justice further still in 1990, when she substantially expanded and beefed up an existing program designed to keep young, mostly first-time, offenders from becoming career criminals. Adopting the catchy acronym JASS (pronounced “jazz”), for Juvenile Alternative Sanction System, the program offers more than 7,000 nonviolent offenders each year a chance to avoid both confinement and an eventual criminal record. Instead, they have to undertake a program of rehabilitation that may include making restitution to their victims. JAS8 director Shirley Almeida says that as a result
of the $1.4-million-a-year program, “you have fewer kids going deeper into the system, which is monumentally more expensive.”
But whatever promise Reno’s innovations hold for reducing future violence, they have failed to staunch the rise in crime. While the index of all serious crime, a compilation that includes the incidence of murder, rape and major thefts per 100,000 people, rose by 12 per cent in Florida between 1981 and 1991, the rate in Dade County increased by 25 per cent over the same period. By the end of the 1980s, Miami’s beleaguered citizens were reporting nearly 700 instances of serious crime every day.
That record has opened Reno to criticism, especially from police officers who were already frustrated by her energetic crackdown on their use of force against suspects. “Violent criminals were not pursued with the vigor that the community deserves,” charged John Rivera, the president of the 5,000-member Dade County Police Benevolent Association. As a result, Rivera said, “the job has gotten tougher and tougher, with less and less support from the state attorney’s office.”
Among police, there is particular contempt for the former state prosecutor’s leniency towards young offenders. “As far as juvenile justice goes,” one Dade County officer told Maclean’s last week, “the system sucks.” Discouraged by seeing the same youths repeatedly arrested and released with little or no punishment, the officer said, “we won’t even
arrest them any more unless we absolutely have to.” Reno’s successor concedes that the criticism is fair. “They’re right,” said Rundle. “We have to really reorganize our thinking about youth violence.”
New thinking, however, is what Reno ex-
celled at during her long tenure as Miami’s senior law officer. And it has not taken the new attorney general long to demonstrate that she is determined to similarly reorganize the thought processes of the 95,000 people who now work for her at the department of justice. Dropping the honorific title of “General,” by which some predecessors insisted that they be addressed, Reno instructed her staff to simply call her “Janet”—or even just, “Hey you.” But in a move that underlined her seriousness, last week she also ordered all 94 senior federal attorneys appointed during the Reagan and Bush administrations to submit their resignations so that, Reno said, she could rebuild the department in a form that “represents my views and the views of President Clinton.”
In Miami, the blunt instruction was viewed as a classic demonstration of Reno directness. “It makes me optimistic,” said lawyer and black activist Smith. “With Janet Reno, even when I thought she was dead wrong, I knew she was honest. That gives her a tremendous opportunity to heal a lot of the wounds that have been a cancer on the people of America.” In a nation increasingly out of patience with street crime, however, Reno will also need to prove that she can contain today’s vice while dissuading tomorrow’s villains.
CHRIS WOOD in Miami with LOUISA HUBAND in Washington
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.