Tarra Simmons’ experience of the criminal justice system was a series of doors slamming shut. “When I was in prison for the last time, I was facing so many legal issues,” she says. “My credit was ruined because everything I had went into collections. I was losing my house to foreclosure because I couldn’t pay the mortgage. The court gave me fines and fees that were accumulating 12% interest. I had to go bankrupt.”
Additionally, she lost her nursing license due to her criminal record, so she couldn’t return to her career, and was facing custody issues with her two sons due to her ex-husband filing for divorce. “All of these collateral legal things were happening to me when I was in prison, and I had no way to advocate for myself from inside,” Simmons recalls. Added to this, was the stress about what would come next, including what work or housing she might be able to access after her release.
As she was facing this pile-up of problems and concerns, Simmons was heartened by a group of repeat visitors to her facility. “There were these law students coming to the prison, and one was encouraging me to think about law school,” she recalls. “I didn’t know any lawyers. I thought they were these elite, supreme beings, and I could never be that. I didn’t think I was smart enough, or know if I could become a lawyer with a criminal record.” The student gave her the name of a professor, which Simmons scribbled down in her journal, and a new round of research began.
A decade after that light bulb went off, Simmons is now a member of the Washington House of Representatives for District 23, where she serves as Vice Chair for the Community Safety, Justice and Reentry Committee. She is also the founder of the nonprofit Civil Survival Project (CSP), which advocates for, and provides legal services to, formerly incarcerated people. As a politician, activist, and attorney who has a relentless drive to move beyond past adversity and mistakes, Simmons serves as a powerful reminder of the benefits and possibilities of giving someone a second chance.
“I first met Tarra in 2019 when Arnold Ventures (AV) partnered with the Clean Slate Initiative, an organization working to automatically clear people’s criminal records and give people a second chance,” recalls Carson Whitelemons, a director of criminal justice at AV. “I remember Tarra grounding the conversation in why we were doing this work — for the communities not present in the room that are suffering because of the harms of our criminal justice system. She has an amazing ability to cut to the heart of any issue and ensure that we don’t lose sight of the big picture. As Tarra built out the work of CSP in Washington, AV was thrilled to partner with her to advance fines and fees reform and remove employment barriers for people with records. State champions like Tarra inform our efforts to reduce other similarly restrictive laws across the country, and help point the way forward to a more just and equitable society where a criminal record is not a permanent punishment.”
A Long Hard Road
“I came from generational cycles of poverty, substance abuse disorder, and incarceration,” Simmons told AV co-founder Laura Arnold in an episode of the Deep Dive podcast. Her parents struggled with substances, and Simmons herself was the victim of sexual violence, and faced homelessness, the foster care system, and juvenile arrests. She became pregnant with her first son at age 14, who became her guiding light. “I was always driven by a desire to make his life better than mine,” she says.
Despite her interactions with the justice system, Simmons was able to obtain her nursing license, but started using drugs again in 2010. After a series of arrests for drug possession and theft in 2011, Simmons was sentenced to 30 months in prison and ultimately served 20. “Traumatic and oppressive are the words that come to my mind — the way that the institutions are designed to be punitive, instead of corrective or rehabilitative,” she says of her time in prison. “They’re not trauma-informed, and they are filled with people who have a lot of trauma. It’s like kicking a dog when it’s down.”
I came from generational cycles of poverty, substance abuse disorder, and incarceration.Tarra Simmons Washington State Representative
When Simmons was released in 2013, she struggled to secure housing and found a job at Burger King, where her meager paycheck was garnished to pay court fines and fees. She reached out to the names the law students had given her, and picked up the book Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption, by Shon Hopwood, who had served over ten years in federal prison and was then a student at the University of Washington law school.
Simmons enrolled at the Seattle University law school in 2014. The school’s dean emerita and law professor, Annette Clark, remembers clearly the first time she encountered Simmons, when she spoke up at a law-student forum called by administrators to address a series of student complaints about cultural concerns. “She talked in this very public setting about her own story, including her involvement with the criminal justice system — how those experiences shaped her life, what she’d faced in law school in terms of microaggressions and implicit bias, and her passion to help individuals who have been incarcerated re-enter into society,” Clark says. “I was blown away by her candor, her honesty, and her vulnerability. And it made a difference, because she helped us think about how we could create a healthier and more inclusive climate for all of our students, but particularly students who have been justice-involved.”
When she began her law studies, Simmons assumed she would become a trial lawyer, representing people like herself. “I thought, ‘If I can help other people with re-entry, civil, and legal issues, and make enough to provide for my kids, that would be a dream come true’,” she says.
But the environment inspired her to think further than that. “Law school exposes you to advocacy and student organizations, and how to make systemic change,” she says. She started organizing with other formerly incarcerated people and formed a community group to address common re-entry barriers, taking direction from school leaders who encouraged them to meet with lawmakers, hold workshops and support groups, and share their stories. The nonprofit CSP was formed from these humble beginnings in 2015. “We didn’t have a blueprint, we didn’t have experience,” Simmons says now. “We just learned as we went along.”
Upon graduation, Simmons was offered a prestigious fellowship from the Skadden Foundation, which helps recent graduates pursue public-interest law. “No one had ever wanted to work on re-entry issues who had themselves been formerly incarcerated, and we thought that she would have immense credibility with her clients, and that she would be a great source of training for the other fellows,” says Susan Plum, the founding director and now senior advisor of the fellowship program.
However, soon after Simmons had been awarded the fellowship and graduated law school with honors, yet another door slammed in her face: the Washington State Bar Association’s Character and Fitness Board ruled that she had failed to meet the eligibility requirements to sit for the bar exam, questioning specifically her “ability to conduct oneself in a manner that engenders respect for the law” and bemoaning what they perceived as a “sense of entitlement.” Though she and her law-school mentors knew her application would be questioned and carefully reviewed by the Character & Fitness Committee, they were shocked by the “absolutely erroneous and appalling decision,” as Clark calls it now.
With both her alma mater and the Skadden Foundation lending support, Simmons fought the case all the way to the Washington Supreme Court, where she was represented by, among others, the man whose work had inspired her to go to law school in the first place: Shon Hopwood, who had been permitted to take the Washington bar exam two years earlier. The state Supreme Court unanimously rejected the board’s decision, with Justice Mary Yu writing in the opinion that “we affirm this court’s long history of recognizing that one’s past does not dictate one’s future.”
We in the legal profession believe in second chances.Annette Clark Dean emerita and law professor for Seattle University Law School
Simmons hadn’t set out to be such a public example, but in typical fashion was pleased that the decision might help other justice-involved people. “It wasn’t my first idea to [advance] systemic policy change. It was, again, having to pivot whatever life throws at me,” Simmons says. “That, in itself, was doing the thing that I wanted to do — break down barriers for formerly incarcerated people.”
“Through her pain, we ended up with a decision that provides such good case law for future applicants to the bar in our state, and also the statement by our Supreme Court — that none of us is the worst act we’ve ever committed,” says Clark. “We in the legal profession believe in second chances.”
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
With her path cleared, Simmons continued to grow the CSP. Members of the organization have held training workshops at carceral facilities, provided legal services and education, spoken at summits and conferences, helped hundreds of clients through its Reentry Legal Aid Program, and rallied around legislation impacting parole and probation, diversion expansion, record clearance, and more. Simmons was personally on hand in 2018 when Governor Jay Inslee signed into law the Fair Chance Act, which banned the box asking about prior convictions on job applications in the state. It was a special moment for Simmons since Inslee had appointed her to the Washington State Reentry Council, where she served as co-chair for four years, when she was still in law school.
“I took every opportunity to do fellowships and networking events, and to sit on boards and councils, and just worked really hard [whenever] I saw an opening where I could make a difference,” Simmons says. In the process, her legislative agenda expanded: “The list kept growing as I identified more barriers for formerly incarcerated people within my community. Because re-entry doesn’t start the day you get kicked out of the prison with $40 and a bus ticket. I started thinking about the conditions of prisons, then ‘Well, why do we send people to prison for this long? Are there more humane ways to help people?’”
Anthony Blankenship was first introduced to Simmons and CSP in 2019, at one of the organization’s advocacy events, and joined as a staffer in 2022 to work on legislative advocacy after a stint building coalitions with the ACLU. “The most beautiful thing about Tarra is that she’s very willing to share her full self with others. In this work, being vulnerable can sometimes hurt you, and she’s turned her story and her vulnerability into her biggest strength,” he says. “She’s constantly learning and constantly trying to apply what she learns. It’s energizing to be around her.”
It’s so beautiful to see these amazing minds come together to share their trauma — the worst moments of their lives — to change the future for other people.Anthony Blankenship American Civil Liberties Union
Sitting in conference rooms where most if not all of his colleagues have been justice-impacted like himself is endlessly empowering, says Blankenship: “It’s so beautiful to see these amazing minds come together to share their trauma — the worst moments of their lives — to change the future for other people.” It’s a sensation Simmons has still not gotten over herself. “We don’t need to put on a mask or show up as somebody we’re not,” she says. “You don’t have to explain or educate; they believe you. It feels like home.”
From Rock Bottom to the State House
Thanks to the backing from her colleagues, her ever-expanding legislative dreams, and a higher profile due to her state Supreme Court case, Simmons decided to run for public office, and in October 2019 she announced her candidacy to represent the 23rd Legislative District. “She has already made an enormous impact on people’s lives,” said the outgoing representative, Rep. Sherry Appleton, in her endorsement. “Tarra is a fighter for justice, equal rights and healthy communities — she is exactly the kind of leader we need right now.”
Even though she thought she’d “inoculated” herself to negative attention and judgment after her court battles, Simmons was still surprised by the dirtiness of politics, such as when anonymous opponents sent detailed records of her past to elected officials and leaders in her area. “Thankfully, all along, I’ve had a lot of great support, a wonderful therapist, and a great community,” she says. “I know who I am, and I know that I have done all I can to make amends for the harm I’ve done in this world.” In November 2020, she won her race by over 30 points.
Now, Simmons gets to think more holistically about criminal justice reform. Specifically, her decade as a nurse also informs her perspective on healthcare and how it intersects with the justice system. “I think if everybody had healthcare and specifically behavioral healthcare, we wouldn’t have as much crime,” she says. Reflecting her intersectional interests and experiences, Simmons now serves on the committees for Appropriations, Community Safety, Justice and Reentry, Healthcare and Wellness, and Rules. This year, she is pushing legislation that would pay incarcerated workers minimum wage, improve access to voting in jails, fund treatment and pre-trial diversion to address the substance use crisis, and reform court fines and fees.
While her sons remain her greatest motivation and the source of her seemingly boundless energy, the family of advocates she’s built continues to grow — and they in turn find strength in her. “The ability for those individuals to always show up, to do this work, to take the losses and continue to fight, is powerful,” says Blankenship of CSP. “We lean on each other.”
Clark can’t believe what Simmons has accomplished in the five years since her graduation. “Her entire life is groundbreaking. She is determined that other individuals will have an easier, more appropriate path,” the dean says. “I’m in awe.”