As a young assistant U.S. attorney, Patricia Wilson Smoot ’85 worked under Eric Holder, who would go on to serve as U.S. attorney general. Early on, Smoot says, while assisting Holder, she was asked to answer a question that would come up
countless times throughout her career as a prosecutor: “How
can you be black and be putting black people in jail?”
Like many observers these days, Smoot is concerned about
studies indicating unequal outcomes for people of color in the
U.S. criminal-justice system. Smoot believes that increasing
diversity among the ranks of prosecutors and others involved
in the system is a necessary part of the solution to rooting out
Her efforts have earned her recognition. Smoot won the 2015
National Black Prosecutors Association’s Norman S. Early Jr.
“It’s important to have black prosecutors,” she says. “Any
criminal-justice system needs to be diverse so that all points of
view are taken into consideration. That’s what criminal justice
is. You have to ask the proper questions and include people
with different points of view.”
Smoot sees the prosecutor’s role as serving to right the
wrongs done to crime victims, who may or may not be of the
same race as the perpetrator. “I am trying to make somebody
accountable for actions they took against another member of
society,” Smoot says. “I have seen cases where grandmothers
who were running flower shops were gunned down, or children
were gunned down in the street. Who is speaking for them?
“I have prosecuted and released all types of people for all
types of offenses,” she adds. “It’s not about race. It’s about the
circumstances. It’s what you can prove.”
Before her current post at the U.S. Parole Commission,
Smoot spent 16 years as a prosecutor, specializing in domestic
violence and sex offenses. As deputy state’s attorney for Prince
George’s County, Md., she helped start Project Safe Sunday,
which engaged religious communities in helping to fight
domestic abuse. Smoot acknowledges the difficulty of bringing
domestic abusers to justice. “There are often several instances
before the victim reports, then more before they actually come
to court,” she says.
Still, Smoot believes it’s vital that courts take an aggressive
approach. She’s reminded of the case of Yvette Cade, a Prince
George’s County woman whose husband doused her with
gasoline and set her on fire just weeks after a judge dismissed
a temporary restraining order against him in 2006. “A lot of
domestic-violence circumstances turn deadly,” Smoot says.
“They are highly emotionally charged. It’s something I’ve seen
in cases I’ve prosecuted. Some of them have kept me up at night.”
Since 2010, Smoot has been contributing her point of view to
the U.S. Parole Commission, where she now serves as chairman.
She was sworn in by then-Attorney General Holder. Her
aim, she says, is to uphold public safety while still treating
ex-offenders with dignity.
“There are so many ex-offenders out there who, when they
get out of prison, are left with nothing,” Smoot says. “They have
completed their sentences, been accountable for their actions.
It is in the best interest of public safety to give them the tools
to be successful when they return to their communities.” She
cautions that she’s not talking about the most violent prisoners
but about ex-offenders with drug or mental-health problems
who need help with housing and education upon release.
“That’s different than being soft on crime,” Smoot says.
“That’s being smart on crime.”
BY MICHAEL AGRESTA • PHOTOGRAPH BY LISA HELFERT
BLACK LAWYERS MATTER
U.S. Parole Commission Chair Patricia Wilson Smoot ’85 addresses
racial inequality in the criminal-justice system.
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