Tarra Simmons, the first felon elected to Washington state’s legislature, wants to give formerly incarcerated people a second chance

“We have a particular narrative in our mind about who’s in prison and the kinds of crimes that they’ve committed,” newly-elected Washington State Sen. Tarra Simmons told Business Insider. Contributed Photo/ Tarra Simmons
  • On November 4, 2020, Washington State Representative Tarra Simmons was elected to the state’s 23rd district representing Kitsap County, becoming the first formerly incarcerated person to serve in the state’s legislature.

  • Simmons, a civil rights attorney who founded the Civil Survival Project, struggled with substance abuse.

  • She led her campaign with her personal story and won both her primary and general election, earning endorsements from Rep. Pramila Jayapal and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

  • In 2017, after graduating from law school at Seattle University, Simmons, represented by ACLU-WA and other attorneys, won a case at the Washington Supreme Court after the Washington State Bar Association did not let her sit for the bar exam.

  • In a wide-ranging interview with Business Insider, Simmons made her policy goals clear, including how she plans to use her past experiences as an advantage in policymaking. 

  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Tarra Simmons has lived many lives: Now she is believed to be the first person convicted of a felony to be elected to Washington’s state legislature.

In 2011, a series of arrests tied to substance abuse and selling drugs led to a 20-month prison stint for Simmons, then a nurse. After her release, Simmons worked at Burger King and went to law school, but she hit a roadblock when she was prevented from sitting for the state bar exam.

Simmons fought for her right to practice law at the Washington Supreme Court, and now, directly across the street from where she argued her case, she’ll be serving as the first Washington State Representative who was convicted of a felony.

Simmons’ new role is representing Kitsap County and Washington’s 23rd district, and she is hoping to use her distinct knowledge of incarceration to give others a second chance.

Business Insider spoke to Simmons about her life experiences, her state and federal level vision for criminal justice reform, and COVID-19 relief. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve had a very wide-ranging career in terms of what work you’ve been involved in before getting to this point. So can you talk to me a little bit about your experience in the healthcare industry and also being formerly incarcerated, the stigma that you’ve experienced too, before the race and in the process of the race?

So yeah, I was a registered nurse. I was the first person in my family to graduate high school let alone go on to college. I came from a really difficult childhood and was in foster care and homeless and had my first child, got pregnant at 14 and had him at 15, and had a lot of childhood trauma. But then went to college, became a registered nurse, and I worked for 11 years in nursing between long term care in long term care facilities and the emergency room. Then for the last five or six years of my career, I worked for a health insurance company as a disease management nurse from home and consulting people.

But not treating the childhood trauma, I had fallen down some stairs and went to the doctor and for my recovery, they started me with opiates. I got addicted to opiates, and then went to illegal drugs and went to prison. And now that I’m in recovery I see a lot of it was tied to my childhood trauma and medicating for that as opposed to physical pain.

But anyway, so the stigma of being a formerly incarcerated person, also a person in recovery, it’s still not… the general population still thinks that the people that end up in prison — thanks to TV shows, we have a particular narrative in our mind about who’s in prison and the kinds of crimes that they’ve committed. And there’s a real negative stigma about that.

And since I got out of prison I’ve been fighting against that stigma and particularly in our laws and policies. So I went to law school to figure out how to change the system because I saw so many people in recovery who had years and years and were the most amazing people who have really done the inner work and have healed and have become of service to others and helped other people navigate substance use disorder and recovery. But they were still held back from renting an apartment, getting a good-paying job, and becoming caretakers for their own grandchildren, all the things. And so I went to law school to figure that out. And then today, actually, I celebrate my three year anniversary from the day I had to fight to the [state’s] supreme court to become an attorney.

But I graduated law school and then they wouldn’t let me sit for the bar exam because of my past and all along the way I’ve been fighting these barriers to allow people like me to just become contributing members of our community. I think the missing link is that people don’t understand that when you [don’t] treat the root cause of crime — I’ve had some mental health problem, addiction, poverty, being a victim of violence — you oftentimes replicate that violence because of learned behavior. If you grow up in certain communities where violence is prevalent, that’s the response that you are socialized to use. But when we can treat the root cause, people can change and recover and become contributing members of our society and our communities. And I think that’s what the general population is missing.

I worked really hard, I launched my campaign a year and two weeks before the election, so I worked really hard because I knew it was going to take time for me to reach all of my voters and to explain my past. And I didn’t want to hide from it because if you hide from it and it comes up, then there is negativity around that, so I led with my story but I had been leading with my story when I fought to the [state’s] supreme court to become an attorney when I went to Olympia, my state capital, and changed laws. I’ve been leading with my story and just being honest and open and vulnerable because I think that it’s the system that needs to change and so I was very fortunate to get the opportunity to educate so many of my voters.

I will say, so I think in my race, many people who usually vote Republican voted for me because of my story, and I’ll say that some Democrats didn’t vote for me because of my past. I think there was a mix but who knows the numbers? I can just tell you that many Republicans reached out to me and said, “I’m a Republican but I’m voting for you because I believe in your story and I believe what you’re doing.” And I ended up with 300 votes less than my Democratic house seatmate.

It did come out in that somebody sent my court records around the district to try and smear me with it. There are still evil people out there who just don’t want to see somebody come back, and it’s unfortunate. And I will say that there were a few Facebook comments but nothing seriously overwhelming which I was surprised about. And I think it’s because I really did a strategic move in inoculating against that by leading with my story.

Can tell me about your successful case in front of the Washington Supreme Court in 2017, after finishing law school? Could you just tell me a little bit about what that fight was like and also how, from three years ago to now, how people’s perceptions around incarceration have changed in any way?

Absolutely. I will say when I graduated law school I had been newly appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee to the brand new Statewide Reentry Council. I became the co-chair of the council in 2016 with our King County prosecutor, Dan Satterberg. I’m going to resign from that role because now I’m going to be in the legislature and just to avoid conflicts. So I’ve been on that council for four years, and I absolutely think that council along with just an overwhelming movement of advocates that have emerged in the last three to five years, has really helped us get the message out and educate more of the general public around the injustice in our criminal legal system which has led to mass incarceration where the United States holds only five percent of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners.

So there has been significant change. We’ve made progress in the legislature and have passed some reforms and it still goes at a very turtle incremental phase of steps. And it’s frustrating for people who really just want to see a healthy and restorative and rehabilitative prison system that allows people to come home and contribute. But in the middle of this is my own personal story of going through law school, graduating with high honors, doing everything right, staying clean and sober, working really super hard, and then being told that I didn’t have the character and fitness to become an attorney based on my past.

And it was absolutely devastating to be told that at the end. And so it took seven months and really brilliant attorneys to get my case before the Washington Supreme Court, which had not been done in modern history. The state’s Supreme Court had not taken up a bar admission case and usually, whatever the bar association says, the court just follows and doesn’t really argue the merits. And so it wasn’t just me alone because if it was me alone, I would have failed. But it was the fact that my dear friend, Shon Hopwood, who helped me apply for law school had been admitted to the Washington State Bar Association two years before me, mind you he is a white dude with a privileged background, but he had robbed five banks with a gun and served 12 years in federal prison.

And so for them to deny the drug-addicted female two years after they admitted him, I think he was outraged and decided to come and represent me in the Supreme Court. By that time, he had also shown that he was a person who could change and who had gone on to accomplish great things. He had gone to clerk in the DC Circuit and then was a professor at Georgetown Law School and a brilliant attorney. And so it would have been hard for the Supreme Court to look at him arguing on my behalf and still tell me “no” because he’s my support system, he’s my friend, and I’m following in his footsteps. And I want nothing more than to serve the public.

But it wasn’t just Shon who walked me through my initial bar application and had been doing this work for 35 years in Washington, but it was an entire legal community who wrote this beautiful amicus brief with the ACLU of Washington and hundreds of attorneys, hundreds of advocates, people in recovery, people from the faith community. Just so many people came together to sign this amicus brief that signaled to the state’s Supreme Court like, “This is a true injustice.”

It’s continuing, historically, what we’ve done is disenfranchise people of color, say that people of the same sex cannot marry. We have, historically in this nation, cast aside certain populations, and it’s been a fight for inclusion and that’s what my people want and need also. And so, it was difficult but then as I reflect today from three years ago when the state’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled in my favor, I just fell to my knees and cried because even more so than winning my election to the state’s House of Representatives, that Supreme Court hearing and opinion was the first time I ever felt heard by an entity that was an authority. And it made me feel like I finally got justice.

And I wanted to go into, now that you’re in this new position — and just what you see as the Washington state priorities for criminal justice reform?

Yeah, I think that Washington state, we need to reduce the number of people that are currently in prison because we are at capacity. COVID-19 is spreading throughout our prisons, people are dying when they weren’t sentenced to death because they cannot protect themselves from the virus. And you can’t safely social distance in prisons. That along with the economic recession that we’re going through and the Department of Corrections having to reduce their budget, they are asking for the legislature’s help to find alternatives to incarceration and reduce our prison population by 30% in the next year.

And so we can do that through a variety of ways. We can increase good time that people are able to earn, we can expand our electronic home monitoring programs so people can go home and do their time on electronic home monitoring, we absolutely need to look at bringing parole back to Washington state which doesn’t currently have parole. So if you are sentenced to 60 years, you’re doing 60 years even if you’re 85 years old and no longer a threat to public safety, which doesn’t make sense. If we had a second review board that could determine whether somebody was a risk to public safety or not, we could let people out safely. So we absolutely need to address the number of people we have in prisons and decarcerate our state prison system.

On the reentry side, we need to make sure people are reentering with support, with a place to live, with appropriate and safe housing, with wrap-around services so they don’t come back. If we kick people out with 40 dollars and a bus ticket back to your county of origin, that’s why one in three people will commit new crime and come back to prison within three years and it’s not serving any of us well. There’s more victims along the way when you do that and more devastation to families and communities and tax payers are paying for that with a billion-dollar per biennium on our state prison system. So if we invested a little bit in people’s education and job skill training and gave them a softer landing back into our community with more support, they’ll likely succeed and not commit new crime and not go back. So we need to address that.

When people have done their time, we need to remove the stigma. So, for example, increasing access to the workforce, some of these barriers for life. We have several people in our… elderly folks who want their child to be their caretaker because they’re disabled and in their home but their child can’t be the caretaker because of a criminal background. So they can’t get the state funding for being a COPES provider to take care of them because it’s a lifetime DSHS disqualifying list. For example, I can’t volunteer in my child’s school still to this day. I’m a lawyer, I’m a state representative, and I can’t go on a field trip with my own child.

And it’s important because the children then suffer the generational trauma. My son, he is African American, he has significant trauma because of my incarceration, I’m trying to break these cycles because my parents were incarcerated, and show up and be a thoughtful, encouraging mother. And so the stigma, the collateral consequences are so vast that you don’t even know unless you’re in this community, a lot of people don’t understand the limitations that we still have. People are in our community contributing, raising their families, paying taxes, working, and still can’t vote. So there are so many collateral consequences that I am excited to lead the legislative effort to fix those.

Let’s go back to your campaign, along the way you got some really solid boosts from Rep. Pramila Jayapal, and from Sen. Patty Murray, and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg just to name a few people, and I’m curious if you can tell me what that meant for you?

UNITED STATES - MARCH 3: Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., talks with reporters after a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus in the Capitol on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., talks with reporters after a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus in the Capitol on Tuesday, March 3, 2020 Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Yeah, I mean to have powerful people in politics get interested in my candidacy, I think it meant a lot to me personally but only because of the community and the identity that I represent that’s never been represented in the legislature and it meant to me that they care about the issues that I am fighting for and about the community that I represent who’s never had a seat at the policymaking table, right? So, to me, it signaled that while getting legislation through Congress or through the state legislature is slow and it takes really building the coalition of stakeholders and bringing police and prosecutors along and survivors and democrats and republicans and so many different constituencies around that they, in their individual capacities, really do support the change that I’m seeking.

And so, for me, it meant a lot to me, obviously personally, because when you’re in a competitive race like I was especially in the primary where I had three Democratic challengers. One who was an elected official, a city council member, who had relationships and name recognition, and here I came out of nowhere, I’ve not been a part of the Democratic party or anything. And to have their support meant a lot me personally because it was a difficult primary. And it was a difficult general too just in a different way just because of the divide in our country and I was running against a Republican and some of the really awful comments that were coming on Facebook and in the packets sent around with my court records. It was challenging.

What are your thoughts about how Washington state and the legislative bodies, different police unions, police forces in the state, have responded in terms of what the demands of the national and local uprisings are?

Well, I think it does depend on the particular area you’re in. I will say that the most progressive place, the Seattle City Council only defunded one percent of the police budget. It was a huge fight to get that one percent. So I don’t think that we have responded really well yet.

I will say from the state-level perspective, I’m encouraged because we have doubled our caucus as far as Black legislators go, we’ve doubled this cycle. We have the most intersectional caucus in the House Democrats that I have ever seen. We had our new member orientation and our reorganization this last weekend and it feels so humbling to be in space with really incredible teammates who we have.

The Speaker has developed an Equity Council, there’s the Members of Color caucus, there’s the Black Caucus, and people are being heard and our membership represents the community. We have a really diverse legislature now and it encourages me that we are going to see more progressive policy on the system that has the worst racial disparities which is the criminal legal system. It has the worst racial disparities of any system. Racism persists in our education system, I mean all of them have racial disparities but the criminal legal system in Washington has the worst. And so I think we’re going to finally make some progress and I know I’m excited to work with my new teammates.

You’re obviously going to be coming in as the pandemic is still going on, so if you could talk to me about what some of the immediate COVID priorities would be?

Yeah, well number one is progressive revenue. Making sure that we don’t cut our way out of the economic recession that’s in the wake of COVID. So I guess first would be making sure that a vaccination is available as soon as possible and disseminated or free to everybody in Washington state, right? So making sure our health is prioritized and I don’t know yet, I hope to get on the Healthcare Committee but I don’t know yet the weeds of where we’re at with expanding healthcare to make sure everybody is covered in case you do get COVID and can you be treated and be hospitalized and cared for and not lose your home. I don’t know where we’re at with that, honestly.

But then the economic recession because of this. Instead of cutting headstart programs and rental assistance and food assistance and all the things that people that are low income and middle class and people that lost their jobs need to survive. I think we need to raise revenue through progressive taxation on the people in our state who are getting away without paying their fair share. So closing capital gains and imposing wealth tax and maybe a millionaire income tax, getting the people with the most to pay their fair share is a priority and really being a strong advocate around budget cuts.

Washington covid 19
A cleaning crew wearing protective clothing (PPE), takes disinfecting equipment into the Life Care Center on March 12, 2020 in Kirkland, Washington. John Moore/Getty Images

And I wanted to also ask about, partially from your own experiences and both working in healthcare, struggling with substance abuse and knowing the grip that opioids have on so many communities in the US. How do you see, at this moment right now playing out especially during the pandemic?

Oh absolutely. So suicide rates are up, addiction and relapse are up, the mental health stress of having to stay home, and the economic stress increases mental health ailments and substance use issues. So that is a huge priority for me as well. I’m asking to go on the Healthcare Committee, I’d like to see mental health become as accessible as it is to go buy a bottle of alcohol inside Safeway now, right? Now it’s so easy for somebody to go and drink away their sorrows and their anxieties and their worries because it’s right there where it used to be you have to go to a liquor store, right? But now it’s right there at Safeway. But what have we done to make mental health that accessible where people can reach out and go see somebody and talk through their anxieties and their fears and get into the solution?

I would love to see mental health clinics available in every community. And I think that is the way that we reduce our reliance on prisons and reduce crime if everybody has somebody that can help them get a new perspective when they’re stuck, get into the solution. Not just mental health providers but case managers too. A lot of times people don’t know that there’s a resource out there for them unless they have a helping hand to tell them that. If you’re losing your kids or you’re a victim of domestic violence and you’re staying because you don’t know how to get an apartment but you didn’t know that the YWCA has funding to help survivors of domestic violence flee, right? And you don’t feel like you have any options and you need case managers and social workers as much as you need a clinical therapist to deal with the mental health. Then it’s all very intersecting.

I wanted to ask you about OR Measure 110 which passed in Oregon, decriminalizing many drugs, also trying to break down stigma around some of those substances, can you talk to me about what you think that could look like in Washington and whether you think that’s a progressive step, what issues could about with it as well?

Yeah. Well, I absolutely think that we need to stop spending billions of dollars on arresting and incarcerating individuals with a public health problem because the resources alone that we spend on the War on Drugs is really a travesty when you have communities that need mental health and social workers and care, right? My concern is that if you just decriminalize without legalizing, you’re not really solving the problem, it’s a step. But if you legalize, for example, so many people are dying from heroin overdoses because it’s cut with fentanyl, there’s no safe supply. And I also see legalizing as a potential revenue source too for our budget crisis.

And so I definitely want to see us not just decriminalize but we need to reinvest all of that funding into actual care and that’s the way that I will support something like that. If you just decriminalize and just leave people floundering and suffering with their mental health and behavioral health disorders and substance use disorders without the care, we really have not accomplished anything.

Washington also has a federal immigrant detention facility and I wanted to ask you about that end goal as well of decarceration and whether that’s something that you’re planning on getting involved within terms of immigrant detention decarceration?

Absolutely, I would love to see the Northwest Detention Center close. I think it’s a travesty that we lock people up who are coming here to make a good life for themselves and their families and there are so many different reasons why people are unable to get documentation and we should be supporting people in their pathway to documentation and citizenship and the ripping families apart is never okay in my mind because the children are suffering. I definitely want to see us support more individuals and a lot of it does intersect on the federal level and so I’m hoping that with the new administration there will be better pathways to documentation and people legally being in America.

As far as Washington is considered, I would love us not to have a federal detention center here. And maybe it’ll make it a lot easier. I will say I support legislation and have supported legislation in the past as an advocate to create welcome cities and to stop the racial profiling that’s happening around courthouses. So that was a bill I supported last year was to make it to where police officers within a one-mile radius of a courthouse cannot ask about immigration status or documentation status because survivors of domestic violence were too afraid to go to the courthouse to get a protection order because of being asked about that and being deported and locked in a detention center away from their children. I just think it’s a travesty.

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