Justice Creator: Tarra Simmons’ story (part one)

Today and tomorrow, I am sharing a conversation that I had with Tarra
Simmons, a formerly incarcerated individual who decided to devote her life to
advocating for people serving sentences and for people with criminal records. In
2014, with the encouragement of the attorneys who helped her rebuild her life
after incarceration, she entered the Seattle University School of Law. She
graduated magna cum laude in 2017. She earned many honors, including a Skadden
Fellowship. On the Skadden Fellowship website, Tarra described her goals while
working with the Public Defenders Association as a Skadden Fellow as: “Direct
representation and policy advocacy on behalf of former justice-involved
individuals to remove barriers to successful entry. Will particularly work to
overcome barriers to employment, housing and legal financial obligations.” The
Skadden Fellowship, a two-year program, is considered to be very prestigious. Tarra
hit an unexpected roadblock when the Washington State Bar Association tried to
prevent her from sitting for the Bar Examination. She challenged the Bar Association
in court. With the assistance of attorney and Georgetown Law School faculty
member Shon Hopwood, himself a formerly incarcerated individual, she won a
unanimous decision by Washington’s Supreme Court in November 2017. In February
2018, she sat for the bar examination. She was formally admitted to the bar in
June 2018.
Alice: Can you tell me when you discovered your passion for
the law, which, for you, seems to be a calling and not just a job?
Tarra: When I was in prison, I was served with divorce
papers from my ex-husband.  There were lawyers who
came to the prison who had me learn to advocate for myself from prison. When I
was released from prison, I saw how people were not given a second chance. We
couldn’t find jobs. We couldn’t find housing. I realized that all of those
things were created by laws and that we could change the laws. I went to law
school so I could learn how to change the laws. I saw how important it was to
have access to an attorney in dealing with my legal issues that came from my
criminal conviction, such as the divorce. Because I had access to a lawyer, I
had favorable outcomes, but a lot of people didn’t have access to a lawyer. I
thought, if I can go to law school, I can help other people with these
situations, too.
Alice: Tell me more about how you see your passion for the
law and working with the legal system as you being able to create change in our
Tarra: Because I am equipped with a law degree and because I
am white, the decision makers, the system players listen to me a little more,
and I am able to speak their language. They kind of relate to me because they
see a white woman with a law degree. I am always trying to recognize my
privilege in terms of race and of profession to be as good of an ally and an
advocate as I can be. I do think that having a knowledge base of how the system
works and having some experience advocating for others in the court system and
working on policy changes gives me credibility. I have been able to form
relationships with system actors. I try to meet them where they are at, and I
think that they are more willing to allow me to come to the table.
Alice: So it sounds like your goal is to be an advocate and
is it also to change policy?
Tarra: Yes, so I work with the legislature a lot, doing
statewide advocacy, to work with judges and others, to develop diversion plans,
to create opportunity for people to advocate for themselves. I’m also
advocating for other individuals in matters, such as clearing their court debt,
vacating criminal records, and those types of things.
Alice: Could we talk about diversion programs because I find
that to be a great way to help people who get in trouble not end up in a
toxic system.
Tarra: I work for the public defender association, where we
started the law enforcement diversion program in Seattle in 2011 and that
program, the LEAD program, has taken off nationwide. What that is, is that law
enforcement, instead of arresting someone, can take them to case management,
immediately, on the spot. I really like the LEAD program because it is a harm
reduction program, so folks don’t necessarily have to stay clean and sober. We
know that there will be a lot of people who relapse. In drug court, if you
relapse, you’re sanctioned. The LEAD program is more about reducing the amount of harm that
you are doing to yourself and to the community. LEAD is an amazing program, and
I’ve been working on getting that established in the county where I live, which
is just a ferry ride away from Seattle. It is a stark contrast because, in
Kitsap County, we have been so far behind the times that we won’t even allow
for methadone programs. It’s been a challenge, but we are making
Alice: What does LEAD stand for?
Tarra: It stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.
Alice: That sounds good to get people into case management
right away, to help them with their difficulties. You mentioned drug addiction.
Could you address issues having to do with that?
Tarra: I think that judges and even prosecutors are
frustrated that the legislature is having the criminal justice system handle a
public health issue, which is substance abuse disorder. I think that everybody
is looking for a new way to handle addiction. We all know that the War on Drugs
has failed. It is troublesome to me that now, because of the opioid epidemic,
we are paying more attention, where, when it was crack cocaine, it was OK to
have a war on drugs. It just speaks to the racial inequities and the racism
that continues throughout our system. Hopefully now, with the opioid epidemic,
folks are paying more attention because it is now affecting affluent white
communities. We can try to make sure that we are centering race in our policies
and in our communications about what has happened truthfully in the failed war on drugs.
Alice: Yes, absolutely. I observed that racism, too. Many of the women that I met when I
was in the Federal Prison Camp in Danbury, Connecticut, were there for drug
charges. And many of them were serving what I thought were excessive sentences
for crack cocaine. My bunkie had a twenty-year sentence, which seemed to be
very excessive. I was wondering if you could talk about the racial disparities a
bit, as well as your opinion of it. To me, it seems blatant and shocking.
Tarra: Yes, it is blatant and shocking that we allowed the
War on Drugs to be excessively punitive. The drug that was mostly aligned with
the black community was crack cocaine. Powdered cocaine was aligned with the
white community and it was treated much differently and much softer. It was
very blatant and very obvious. You don’t need a law degree to see the
disparities and to see that racism is alive and well in our country.
The racism is horrifying. As the mother of two black sons, I
wonder what’s going to be the next horrifying example of racism in our country.
The response to the crack cocaine epidemic, as compared to the opioid epidemic,
is one. I don’t think that we’ve rid our country of racism. It bothers me. I’m
constantly worried for my two black sons. What are they going to excessively
criminalize in a way that disproportionately impacts black and brown people?
It’s appalling and it causes me a lot of anxiety.
Alice: I can imagine that it would. You want the best for your sons. You want them to have a
successful, happy life and not be abused by a toxic system.
Tarra: Yes, exactly.
Alice:  People who
have criminal records are called “justice-involved” people. It seems that you
are now a justice involved person in a different way. You are working to create
justice.  Can you tell me what your hopes are for a
better opportunity for people?
Tarra: Right now, I’m appointed by the governor to the
statewide re-entry council, where we are trying to develop a system in which
folks who are coming out of prison have peer support. So they have somebody who
was formerly incarcerated, who has successfully overcome most of the stigma
associated with their criminal history. For example, they are able to find
employment and housing and re-unify with their families and things like that.
We envision everyone re-entering from prison having peer support. What that
takes, though, is going to the legislature to ask for money to re-invest away
from the criminal justice system. This is recognizing that re-entry is one of
the politically safe things right now, to get some bi-partisan support. 

We all
want sentencing reform. We want all people to be diverted away, even those who committed violent
offenses, by using restorative justice instead. 
There’s a lot of controversy and not a lot of political will to see
those programs come to fruition. It doesn’t mean that I stop advocating for
them. But, one place where there is a lot of political will is in the area of
re-entry. If we want to reduce recidivism and help people succeed, they need a
holistic approach upon re-entry, which includes housing, education, employment,
identification, child support. They need peer support and mentoring also.

Also we’ve worked on banning the box for employment*. We’re thinking of
banning the box for housing now. We’ve banned the box for higher education this
past year. So those are the types of reforms that I’m actively working on.
Also, I’m working with some individuals on a case-by-case basis and am
advocating in court for them to get specific relief now. I’m looking forward to
taking on some clemency cases here, too.

*Washington is one of eleven states that has “banned the box” for employment. Questions about criminal history have been removed by law from employment applications. This helps ex-offenders focus on their skills and qualifications for a job before being asked about their criminal record. The goal is to reduce recivism rates by giving ex-offenders a better chance at obtaining employment.

Tomorrow: Tarra talks about the challenges faced when women are sentenced to prison and families are separated. She also discusses mental health issues in prison and the mental health issues that formerly incarcerated individuals experience after release.

3 thoughts on “Justice Creator: Tarra Simmons’ story (part one)”

  1. Excellent interview. Ms. Simmons is an exceptionally bright and gifted person. In my sojourn through NY's gulag over several decades I did see and befriend a handful of similarly accomplished individuals who became highly regarded and ground-breaking attorneys. All male, mostly white. I'm looking forward to Part II. Thanks for this, Alice.

  2. Where do you want to go today?

    Hi Alice,
    This is a spellbinding interview. I am beginning to understand the trap that has been built into the legal system for someone who has to "check the box". It makes it so much more difficult to get back on the right bus to a better place.
    If the boxes are removed does it prevent asking the question, and what is the best response if it is asked after the box has been removed.
    I am so glad to learn that people are working to repair the problem and the results cannot show up fast enough.
    I believe I have already seen changes in the attitude to racism in our younger citizens who are accepting more of their I hope that trend accelerates.
    Thank you Ms. Simmons for whatever you can accomplish in creating equality and justice for all.

  3. Where do you want to go today?

    fixing broken paragraph from previous comment:
    I believe I have already seen changes in the attitude to racism in our younger citizens who are accepting more of their peer's example and less of their parents'. I hope that trend accelerates.

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