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Formerly incarcerated WA lawmaker has record cleared, celebrates freedom from 'invisible prison'

Representative Tarra Simmons smiles, wearing a purple dress and sitting in a crowd of people
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-Bremerton) sits in the crowd listening to a person speak at her celebration event in Bremerton Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, after having her criminal record cleared by a judge earlier that afternoon.

Smiles and the sound of laughter aren't typically what people imagine when they think of courtrooms. But the Kitsap County Courthouse was full of both at a long-awaited hearing for one Washington lawmaker last week.

Washington state Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-Bremerton) was joined by friends, supporters, and loved ones in court Friday, for a hard-fought celebration.

With a stroke of a pen, Judge Kevin Hull cleared Simmons' criminal record – allowing her to finally move past what she calls an "invisible prison." The court was able to vacate her convictions after the Legislature approved a bill in 2019 that revised the rules around clearing a person's criminal history.

Simmons said the felonies from her past made it impossible for her to volunteer in her kids' schools, make medical decisions on behalf of her dying mother, and more.

"I've been denied TSA pre-check, I've been turned away at the Canadian border, I can't go to Australia – I mean the list goes on, but the most important thing really has to do with housing and employment," she said at the hearing.

Simmons is the state's first formerly incarcerated lawmaker. After serving prison time for drug-related crimes about a decade ago, she graduated from law school with honors at Seattle University in 2017. She also successfully petitioned the state Supreme Court to allow her to sit for the bar exam. Simmons was elected to the Legislature in 2020.

Dozens of people who have supported or been part of Simmons' journey – including judges, professional colleagues, and other formerly incarcerated people – watched the hearing last week online and in person.

Afterward, many attended a celebration event at a nearby community center in Bremerton. One of those attendees, Michelle McClendon, met Simmons through Civil Survival, a group led by formerly incarcerated people to advocate for criminal justice reform. Simmons is the nonprofit's founding director.

"Today is actually truly a day of celebration of liberation – not just for Tarra but for all of those who are connected to Tarra – because now it also restores the hope that says 'this is not the end of my story,' that each and every day can be re-written," McClendon said as people hugged Simmons, snapped photos together, and filled plates with food.

One of Simmons' two sons, Devon Lewis, said the support for their family has been overwhelming. At the event, he spoke about his mom's perseverance.

"She just inspires me to put my all into everything I do," said Lewis. "She was told she wasn't going to be able to become a lawyer and she didn't let that stop her."

Still, Simmons said there are more barriers to tackle for people affected by the legal system, and she said she plans to continue pursuing policies focused on legal justice in the Legislature.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.