Why one person became a public interest lawyer

When Jacqueline Smith joined the Mississippi Center for Justice, it was not the culmination of a lifelong dream to work as an education staff attorney and pro bono coordinator. As a kid in the Mississippi Delta, raised by a working class family, she had no desire to be an attorney. “I wanted to be a wife and mother,” she said. “I didn’t dream about professional aspirations when I was really young.”

And yet there she was. The Center, which has operated for 12 years, is a Biloxi-based public interest law firm that, in their words, “advanc[es] racial and economic justice through an approach that combines legal services with policy advocacy, community education and media advocacy.”

Kindness is marked by concern for others, and Smith’s unwavering strength to help the most helpless serves as a blueprint for the rest of us.

Her inspiration to study law was rather unconventional: Oprah. In the late 1980s, when she was in early 20s, Smith saw an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show about victims’ rights and how victims are treated in the criminal justice system.

“There were so many safeguards in place to protect people who were accused of crimes, but not many protections in place for the victims of crimes,” she recalled. ”I thought I had a strong enough voice, and I thought that I could be of use to people if I went to law school.”

Smith, who had earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Delta State University, went to the University of Mississippi School of Law.

After graduating, she prosecuted child support cases and, she said, did so “passionately.” But a classmate persuaded her to join the District Attorney’s office in the fourth Judicial District of Mississippi. “You’re eating them up on child support,” her classmate told her. “Imagine what you would do for children who are abused and neglected.”

Which is precisely what she ended up doing for five years. But she’s always had an admiration for the Center. “Even though I was a prosecutor,” she said, “I could see the other side of the work that was being done – the non-criminal side of the work. It wasn’t about filing lawsuits for money. They were actually filing lawsuits to change lives and impact communities.”

Smith was hired as an education attorney, where she represents children while they’re still in school, in youth court. She’s their advocate in disciplinary hearings when they face school suspensions and expulsions, or if they have youth court proceedings pending against them due to activity on school grounds. Smith also helps parents get their children evaluated, to see if they qualify for special services.

“I see my role as interceding with children before they get to the point of being charged with a felony. Most of my clients are K through 12, but some are 18 and 19 and still in school because they’ve been held back,” she said.

Smith remembers one case from her first year particularly well. A female student had been suspended and referred to the alternative school because a boy talked her into meeting him in the restroom, where they kissed. It was her first. “She was an abused child, who was raised by a relative,” Smith said. “She was 16 but had not been on a date. So, as a shy child, she was more susceptible to the young man encouraging her.”

The school deemed this improper and recommended that she be suspended and removed from the general education system. The girl had not incurred so much as a single infraction, and Smith fought hard for her. The principal reversed his recommendation and, in what constitutes a happy ending, assigned the student a week of in-school detention.

Smith’s job could not be more important. She’s giving these kids a chance. “The schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline in Mississippi is flush,” she said. “We’re just trying to stem the tide.”