State’s New Hope Act paves way for Rep. Simmons, others to clear criminal records

State 23rd District Rep. Tarra Simmons, center, poses with Washington State Supreme Court Justice Steven Gonzales, for a photo taken by State 23rd District Sen. Drew Hansen, during a celebration Friday at the Marvin Williams Center in Bremerton. Earlier that afternoon Simmons had her criminal history vacated through the New Hope Act.

Tarra Simmons didn’t sleep well for a week, in preparation for a Friday Superior Court hearing. That was the place the 23rd District legislator, attorney and, until Friday, felon, would have a case heard to vacate her criminal history. 

“I can’t believe it’s finally here,” Simmons said during the week approaching her hearing. “I haven’t been able to completely heal from that whole thing. You can’t heal when you’re so worried about how you’re going to provide for yourself when you get out of (prison) because prisons are an oppressive and traumatizing place to be. You’re exposed to violence if you’re not victimized yourself, you’re talked down to by the staff and the guards because you’re quote-unquote a bad person.”

Long before she became a state representative, Simmons struggled with a traumatic upbringing and a substance abuse disorder that led her incarceration for more than three years for an assortment of crimes. After she was released from prison in 2013 following convictions on theft and drug crimes, Simmons trained as a nurse, graduated from Seattle University School of Law, became a member of the Washington State Bar Association and was elected to the state legislature. 

Though Simmons feels safe and secure many years out of prison now, her criminal history has followed her into many aspects of her life, from volunteering at her children’s schools to renting an Air BnB, crossing international borders or being an executor of her mother’s estate.

“When I think about today, finally having these convictions off my record, I’ll no longer have to face the rejections that I face in all these ways,” Simmons said. “It’s a legal act, but it’s also healing and gives me more security that I’ll be able to always provide for my kids based on my own merit, my own qualifications, and I will no longer be subjected to abuse, exploitation. I won’t be part of an underclass.”

On Friday Judge Kevin Hull presided over the State v. Simmons, a case that ​vacated her criminal history before a full courtroom in Port Orchard and online attendance. Among those watching were Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu, former Washington Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge and Mike McCready, lead guitarist for Pearl Jam. 

Newly appointed Washington State Senator for the 23rd District and friend of Simmons, Drew Hansen, represented Simmons and Kitsap County Prosecutor Chad Enright represented the state. 

“It’s not every day that you get to argue a motion to vacate a criminal conviction for someone who deserves it as much as Tara Simmons does,” Hansen said. “Tara Simmons is Exhibit A for why we allow people to clear their convictions. She is a totally different person than she was when she was convicted of these crimes.”

Hansen is connected to Simmons’ case beyond just the political affiliation in the Legislature. He sponsored House Bill 1041, known as the New Hope Act, which passed the House and Senate unanimously in 2019 and created the provisions through which Simmons was able to vacate her criminal history. 

The bill expanded the types of convictions that could be vacated previously, including second-degree felony assault, of which Simmons was convicted, third-degree assault when not committed against police, and second-degree felony robbery as long as it wasn’t committed with a deadly weapon or was sexually motivated. 

The bill doesn’t automatically clear anyone’s criminal history, but makes it easier for someone to request a court vacate their convictions after they’ve been crime-free for a period of time. The bill also makes it easier for an ex-criminal to get a certificate of discharge to show they’ve satisfied the conditions of their sentence. 

“If you want to totally turn your life around and stay crime free for a long period of time, you should have the right to go to court and argue for why you should be able to vacate that conviction,” Hansen said. “We should recognize that by clearing her convictions to recognize the fact that she’s turned her life around just like we should with anyone else.”

Simmons is now the Vice Chair of the House Civil Rights Judiciary Committee and the founding director of the Civil Survival Project to help previously incarcerated people with vacations and pardons and help them overcome barriers to employment and housing. 

Simmons was eligible for vacation in May, but admitted she procrastinated on the process because she had mixed feelings.

“I also feel a little bit of guilt that there are so many people who deserve to have their record vacated and to be free as well and they’re not eligible because of the type of crime they have,” Simmons said. “It’s not fair and so I didn’t want to benefit from something that I felt other people didn’t have access to.”

When her case was brought before the court, Judge Hull vacated Simmons’ criminal history. 

Simmons and Hansen hope that Friday’s hearing will inspire other individuals with criminal records who’ve turned their lives around, and educate them on the legal right to seek vacation. 

“Maybe they’ve been suffering in silence and living with the stigma and the rejection and I hope that they’ll go to the Civil Survival website and see that there’s a lot of information there about whether you’re eligible, if you can request your criminal history,” Simmons said.

Formerly incarcerated people can also navigate the vacation process step by step with Clearviction, an interactive online tool that will help users assess their eligibility, collect documents and find legal aid. 

Simmons celebrated her vacation with friends and colleagues at the Marvin Williams Center in Bremerton following her court hearing. Next week, she’ll be heading to Norway with representative from Washington State prisons to tour the country’s approach to incarceration.

“I’m not a changed person,” Simmons said. “I’m a healed person.” 

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