by Daniel A. Rosen |
On election day in November, 2020 Washington attorney and former inmate Tara Simmons became the first person convicted of a felony elected to the state’s legislature.
Prior to the election, she said she was running to help give people “a first chance so they won’t need a second chance later on in life.”
Her own second chance came after almost two years in prison on drug-related charges. A serious injury led to dependence on painkillers and opiate addiction; theft, weapons possession, and drug distribution charges followed in 2011 and she served 20 months in state prison.
Simmons went to law school a year after her release, and graduated with honors in 2017. The state bar initially denied her application due to her felony history, but she took her case to to state Supreme Court and won.
Shon Hopwood, a Georgetown University law professor who had a similar challenge to attain the bar, helped Simmons in her legal fight to become an attorney. Hopwood calls Simmons one of the most inspirational people he’s ever met.
“She understands the issues facing people who don’t have a lot of means in a way that most politicians never will, because she’s lived that life,” Hopwood said.
Simmons says that she views her reform platform as part of a concerted effort to improve the lives of her constituents.
“I think the whole mission I have in life is to break down stigmas and barriers,” Simmons said. She wants those who have similar stories to “have hope and opportunity when they come back from a mistake.”
Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums says Simmons will advocate for change after living through the justice system. “She’s going to be able to talk about how the state can reform its laws and prisons based on her personal experience,” he said.
The formerly incarcerated are greatly underrepresented in elected office. In 2020 several former inmates ran for office across the US, though several states restrict them from serving in government. Illinois, Alabama, West Virginia, and Delaware all deny or limit that privilege. And fundraising and canvassing has been difficult for first-time candidates in this pandemic election year. Despite these barriers, candidates like Simmons found ways to pursue their cause and run.
“There are so many people who are being pushed out from these barriers,” Simmons said. “And our society is losing out on their gifts.”
Hopwood, of Georgetown, appreciated that Simmons didn’t try to hide her record, but rather made it central to her campaign. He said people in prison need to see that they can have a future when they come home.
When people get out and “can’t find work, can’t find stable housing, realize that they’re locked out of thousands of different professions,” Hopwood says they’re more likely to fall back into criminal behavior.
Subsequent to prison and prior to her candidacy, Simmons also co-founded the Civil Survival Project, which provides legal counsel and services to the formerly incarcerated. Her election will give her a chance to pursue the same ends from the state house.
“If we create thriving and healthy communities, where people have their needs met and where if they have an issue they have someone to talk to about it and have support, I think we can really reduce crime and our reliance on prisons,” Simmons said.