Coming from a family with a significant number of medical professionals, including her father, who was a Harvard University-trained physician, J. Patricia Wilson Smoot aspired to become a physician from the early stages of her life. By the time she arrived at college, however, her goal had changed. Although the science of medicine remains of great interest to her, she also acknowledges she’s very squeamish. One of the most difficult things she ever had to do was to tell her parents she wasn’t going to pursue a medical career after all.
Subsequently, Smoot engaged in some self-reflection. She recognized her gift was the ability to deal with and help people, and she knew she had to follow the path paved by her skills. Following receipt of her bachelor’s degree in English and sociology in 1985, with a legal studies concentration from Bucknell University in 1985, Smoot attended law school and received her juris doctorate in 1988 from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. At the time, she had no desire to become a prosecutor.
Now, years later, J. Patricia Smoot, known fondly as “Trish” to her friends and colleagues, received a Presidential appointment to serve as the as commissioner of the U.S. Parole Commission. Sworn in on Nov. 1, she brings to the job a wealth of impressive experience and diverse skills derived from her career history. Smoot believes there's nothing one can't do and maintains that individuals have to conquer their fears and position themselves for achievement.
Smoot’s greatest inspiration came from the Honorable Susan R. Holmes Winfield for whom she served as a judicial law clerk for the Superior Court for the District of Columbia. Smoot recalls Judge Winfield as being a thoughtful, intelligent and brilliant legal mind as well as a tough litigator and judge. According to Smoot, Judge Winfield shaped her professional character and inspired her to be proud of her craft. Smoot became a strong advocate for women’s issues. Her mother had been ill for a large part of her life, and Smoot had to be strong for her. She also derived her own strength from her mother.
Smoot’s passion to help others led her down the path of becoming a public defender as well as a prosecutor. Though she cherished her work in the Public Defender’s Office, she grew weary of the limited availability of resources. She reached the point where she felt she was no longer making a difference despite the fact she was protecting the Constitution.
One day, she saw Eric Holder on television. At the time, he was the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and currently the U. S. Attorney General. Holder believed in having an open dialogue with the defense bar and ensuring that prosecutors were doing the right thing. He knew that those who did defense work would be good prosecutors. He had 15 slots to fill. Smoot applied, and he interviewed all the finalists—one of which was Smoot. She was very proud to be in his class of hires in June 1994, and she worked under him for eight and one-half years. During her tenure in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, she served as a line attorney, the senior attorney of the sex offense section, the deputy chief of the misdemeanor section and, finally, the director of professional development (training) in which she oversaw the management and training programs for 350 attorneys and support staff.
In 2002, Smoot accepted an offer by Prince George’s County (Md.) State Attorney Glenn F. Ivey to serve in the No. 2 spot as his deputy state’s attorney. She accepted and served in that capacity prior to being appointed to her new position as U.S. Parole Commissioner.
Her experience as deputy state’s attorney was an enriching experience. She learned a great deal from people and became enmeshed in their lives. Smoot and Ivey complimented each other. He trusted her judgment and allowed her to be herself.
The knowledge and skills she gleaned from her various professional experiences throughout her career will serve her well as a U.S. Parole Commissioner. She will make decisions regarding parole and review conditions, among many other responsibilities. She brings to the table a solid knowledge of the criminal justice system as a whole, good judgment based on knowledge, and a fresh view of how things should be done.
At the same time, Smoot faces numerous challenges. She must ensure there’s a balance concerning the person paying a debt to society and the safety of the community. She’ll have to evaluate a number of areas to determine if someone should remain incarcerated or if the person has paid the debt to society and is ready return as a citizen to a community. She’ll assess whether there are resources in the community to assist those who reenter the community. She’ll interact with the Department of Corrections and will also interact with others to determine what works and what doesn’t work based on the evidence of studies.
Smoot suggests more research needs to be done. Smoot acknowledges that throwing away the key doesn’t work because the majority of those folks come back out in society, and they need to put things in place. She contends it isn’t being soft on crime but, instead, is being smart on crime.
The personal qualities she brings to the job include being fair, open-minded, thoughtful and willing to learn; she wants to know what the best programs and practices are so that she can make informed decisions.
“It is a very unique, one-of-a-kind position that she is being appointed to. Fortunately, she has the federal background combined with the law enforcement and managerial experience that is required for this position. Eric Holder has given her an important responsibility in dealing with the appropriate release of some very serious criminals,” said John Maloney, Deputy State’s Attorney for Montgomery County Maryland. Maloney previously worked with Smoot in the past when he served in the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office.
“The county’s loss is the nation’s gain. Trish Smoot was a tremendous asset to my office. Her contributions in and out of the courtroom will have an enduring impact not only in the State’s Attorney’s Office but also in the legal community in Prince George’s County and throughout the State of Maryland. As part of the U.S. Parole Commission, Trish will be firm, fair and consistent in the pursuit of justice.
Her unwavering commitment to public service is evidenced by her previous service in the Office of the Public Defender, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, and for the last eight years in my office as my deputy. I commend President Obama in his choice of J. Patricia Wilson Smoot for Commissioner of the U.S. Parole Commission and congratulate her in joining this historic administration,” said Glenn F. Ivey, Prince George’s County Maryland State’s Attorney.
Along with her friends and colleagues, Smoot’s husband and her two children, ages 9 and 14, are very proud of her. With all that Smoot has to offer in her newly appointed role, everyone has good reason to be.