3 questions for the Washington state representative whose criminal record was just cleared

Following her prison sentence, Tarra Simmons graduated law school with honors and won election in 2020 to the state legislature.

Washington State Rep. Tarra Simmons with Kimonti Carter. (Photo provided by Simmons)
Washington State Rep. Tarra Simmons with Kimonti Carter. (Photo provided by Simmons)

Washington state representative and civil rights activist Tarra Simmons marked an important milestone last week when her criminal record was officially vacated.

Simmons was sentenced to 30 months in prison on three felony convictions for drugs and retail theft in 2011. In the years following her release, she went to law school, graduated with honors and fought all the way to the Washington Supreme Court for the right to sit for the bar exam. In 2020, she became the first formerly incarcerated person to win a seat in the Washington state legislature. During her first term, she helped pass a law that automatically restored voting rights to felons upon their release from prison.

The vacation came under the 2019 New Hope Act, which was passed unanimously by Simmons’ colleagues in the legislature. The law does not automatically eliminate anyone’s record, but it expands the number of crimes eligible to be cleared and makes the process easier.

Simmons spoke to Yahoo News Thursday morning on her way to a hearing for her friend Kimonti Carter. Carter was sentenced to life in prison for a gang-related murder he committed in 1997 at age 18, and while behind bars he started a prisoner-led higher education initiative. Carter was released under a new law that allowed for resentencing but that ruling is being challenged.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You have spoken about no longer being part of “an underclass.” Can you talk about some of the obstacles the formerly incarcerated face when they try to integrate back into society?

I will say like housing and employment are the biggest obstacles because you kind of need those things in order to not commit crimes. If you cannot find housing, and you're living outside, a lot of times, you're exposed to people that are also using drugs, so your chances not using drugs are really minimal. In order to have any kind of foundation, you have to have housing, and it is very, very hard to find landlords willing to rent to people with criminal history.

The biggest barrier was that and then employment. We have made progress over the last five years but when I was released it was if you wanted a family wage job, the only place you could really find one was in like the trades — carpenter, iron worker, electrician, those types of things. But if you're not, if you don't have that kind of skill set or aptitude, which a lot of women don't — it's not something we've been exposed to throughout our lives, generally speaking, not all but — it was really hard as a woman to find a family wage job. I literally started at Burger King when I got out of prison. And then they were garnishing my paycheck to pay off my court fines and fees that I was given as part of my sentence. And none of that went to an actual victim. It was all to fund the court system, and it accrued 12% interest the whole time I was in prison. The way we are setting people up on reentry is just, you know, why we have so much crime and recidivism in our country.

What has your mindset been since having your convictions vacated?

Even though I've been free in the community, because of my criminal record society told me that I wasn't good enough and that I could never be good and there was nothing I could ever do about it because every time I was rejected when I would apply for an apartment or for a job, to volunteer with my kids at school, to get insurance, to be the executor of my dying mother's estate or to get TSA PreCheck, I was reminded that society never thinks I'm going to be good enough because I've done some bad things in my life, but I really think I'm a good person and I love others and I'm trying to encourage and support other people and prevent crime by being a support system to others.

It's kind of crazy and weird and I'm still trying to really embrace this because being a felon has been my identity since I was 13 years old, and so it has definitely been part of my development, my self-worth and I'm glad to be letting it go, but it's going to take some time to see myself as a regular, integrated citizen.

Are there any plans to push for the expansion of laws like the New Hope Act in other states?

Every state is different. Some states are better than us, some worse. Some states have clean slate now, which is the automatic record vacation, which is really good. But it's not for all crimes. So every state kind of depends on the type of criminal history, how long it's been, and every state has kind of a different process. A few of them have clean slate for some time, which is the gold standard in my mind is to have the court system automatically expunge or vacate the criminal history so it goes away, but it gets pretty wonky.