Connie (Gits) Smith, ’88, ’09 OSR, remembers watching a lot of teens get into trouble when she was a teen herself.
“I wondered how I went one way and they went the other,” she says.
At age 18, Smith’s curiosity about why some teens ended up on the wrong side of the law nudged her to try for a job with Pierce County Juvenile Court. Her spiky hair and admiration for punk rock pioneer Joan Jett didn’t do her any favors.
“I was very punked out and received the brush off. Still, I always have had this internal hope for people who at some point took the wrong turn in life,” says Smith, who today is Chief U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services Officer, Western District of Washington.
Hers is a go-getter’s journey with unlikely turns all her own. At various points in life, she took on roles as a bakery clerk, house cleaner and volunteer who listened and learned as she washed the hair of juvenile defendants.
Right out of high school she enrolled at Green River Community College. When she made a second try at Pierce County Juvenile Court, she started as a volunteer—with duties that included the aforementioned hair washing—before becoming a paid aide in a variety of roles.
While a volunteer at Tacoma’s Nativity House, operated by Catholic Community Services as a day shelter for the homeless, she met Joe Fortier, S.J., who was particularly instrumental in convincing her to step beyond community college to complete a bachelor’s degree at Seattle University.
“I was drawn to the principles of a Jesuit Catholic university, its sense of community and values,” she says.
Soon, she was working part time for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office as a victim advocate.
Bob Kastama, a Seattle U criminal justice instructor who retired in 1993, says Smith is one of a handful of students he gladly would have hired as a probation and parole officer.
“She had a good sense of presence. She was empathic, yet as objective as possible. She projected warmth and she wasn’t pretentious,” says Kastama.
Within a year of graduation, Smith had launched her career in corrections as a probation officer.
Just a few years later, Smith became a federal probation officer and six years ago was promoted to chief—the first woman ever to hold the position in the Western district. Today she has a staff of 110 in five offices that oversee some 1,500 defendants.
The neutrality of federal court pleases her. Because there’s no monetary bail, defendants aren’t detained based on their economic status.
“We’re not there to prosecute or defend; we’re there to support the judges. It’s the intersection of social work, law enforcement, resource broker and the eyes and ears of the court,” she says.
Typical federal court cases include bank, mortgage and securities fraud, firearms and large-scale drug cases, Internet crimes against children and criminal immigration cases.
In not too many years, Smith faces mandatory retirement at age 57 and says it makes her feel more reflective.
“I’ve been around to see the whole war on drugs and the fallout from that. The pendulum is swinging. Congress is looking at how much is being spent on mass incarceration that could be spent on services that could make a difference in people’s lives,” says Smith, who is on the executive committee for the DREAM program, offering drug programs in Western Washigton to qualified defendants as alternatives to incarceration.
“Once they start addressing substance abuse, it’s amazing how their lives turn around. When you can see the big picture like that, it’s very satisfying.”
Criminal Justice Research
Seattle University Criminal Justice graduate students in the MA in Criminal Justice program, Caitie Healing and Ray Cowles, both class of 2016, serve as research assistants in Smith’s office.
The work of Cowles and Healing is in collaboration with SU Criminal Justice Chair Jacqueline Helfgott and Associate Professor Elaine Gunnison to inform criminal justice practice for those under federal supervision in pretrial, probation and post-conviction.
“Our research assistants bring a fresh perspective to corrections. Their intellect, skills, character and belief in changing lives complements our organizational goals and helps us under-stand our work through a new lens,” says Smith.
The work has inspired Healing to consider a career in corrections.
“I’m realizing how much impact you can have on a person's life” Healing says. “Connie has been an amazing mentor, always willing to help us with our current positions and future careers. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work with and learn from her and all the probation officers in the district.”
First published in SU Magazine, Spring 2016