By Cassandra Smith
Young Lawyers Section Board of Governors
I’ll never forget Career Day at Robert E. Lee High School. I, along with a few other assistant state attorneys, set up a display table in the gymnasium and explained to students what it was like to be a prosecutor.
Many of the students were in awe hearing about the cases we try in court and how we get to investigate crimes alongside law enforcement officers. Some students had no idea about the role prosecutors play in the criminal justice system.
Overall, it was a wonderful experience. But one student stood out from the rest.
A young woman approached our table with her friends. We began our explanation about who we are and what we do. Her friends smiled and nodded their heads. But the young woman pointed at us and said, “You are the bad guys.”
Laughing, I replied, “No, no. We prosecute the bad guys who do bad things.” To our surprise, she replied firmly, “No, you are the bad ones.”
I realized that this student, at the age of about 17, already had an experience with my office or some other office that was so negative that, in her mind, we are the bad ones. I tried to talk to the young woman to hear about her experience, but she wasn’t interested in talking and left our table.
Unfortunately, that sentiment about prosecutors is shared by many people in our community.
It’s certainly not a surprise because the defendants we prosecute are people with families and friends who don’t want to see them convicted and/or incarcerated.
However, from that experience, I realized how important it is for me as a prosecutor to work to change that perspective. Not just because of my job title, but because I also am a resident of this community, and I believe citizens should have a positive relationship with the State Attorney’s Office and law enforcement.
This past spring, I had the opportunity to make a positive impact in the community when I participated in the Ribault High School Future Lawyers Program. The Young Lawyers Section of the Jacksonville Bar Association created the program, and when I found out about it, I knew I had to participate.
Serving as a mentor to a student was especially important to me because my mom is a proud Ribault alumna. And while I didn’t grow up in the area, many members of my family live near the school, and I’ve been to many community events there.
It also was a personal opportunity because as a high school student I never got the chance to meet a prosecutor, or even an attorney. I wanted to show the students that there are numerous career possibilities, whether the practice of law or choosing another profession.
During the mentorship program, I got to explain the role of the prosecutor, the defense attorney and criminal trial procedure. Other attorneys from different areas of law participated in the program as well, which exposed the students to an array of possibilities within the legal profession.
The program ended with a mock trial at the Bryan Simpson U.S. Courthouse in U.S. District Judge Brian Davis’s courtroom. The students performed amazingly, and it made me proud to see them learn and admire the legal profession.
Having that opportunity inspired me to continue my work with the youth of Jacksonville by using my education and experience to connect with the next generation.
I understand my position in the criminal justice system won’t make everyone happy, but it is my intention to serve Jacksonville residents not just in the courtroom but also in the community.
As attorneys, and especially as public servants, we have an obligation to be involved with the public outside the legal system. By doing so, we can develop trusting relationships.
I believe positive interactions can change the misconception that prosecutors are the “bad guys” and positively impact the future generation of lawyers and leaders.
Cassandra Smith has been since February 2015 an assistant state attorney in the 4th Judicial Circuit. She is a graduate of Florida State University and Florida Coastal School of Law.