Your past doesn’t define you, but it can help shape your future.
Growing up, Tarra Simmons’ life was far from normal. She was surrounded by poverty and crime, and her parents dealt with substance abuse.
As Simmons, a nurse, mother, and wife, grew older, she too found herself in trouble—but it wasn’t until her most recent incarceration that something clicked.
“I hope that this sends a message to people that you are never defined by your worst mistakes.”
Simmons had an extremely difficult life as a child and young adult. There were times that she was homeless, the victim of sexual violence, and even became a thief.
Eventually it led to an addiction to drugs.
In 2010 her father, who she had been caring for, suddenly died. It was not long after that she was arrested three times and eventually sent to prison.
“The last time was for delivery of drugs, and I was sentenced to 30 months in prison. I ended up serving 20 months based on those criminal convictions,” Simmons told KING 5.
Simmons’ choices left her life in ruins.
When she was released in 2013, her marriage had fallen apart and her home had gone into foreclosure. She needed money, but because of her criminal record no one would hire her, so she had to declare bankruptcy.
“I had a lot of barriers,” she told KNKX in May 2017.
During her time in prison and after her release she received a lot of support from her lawyers.
— Tarra Simmons (@TarraSimmons5) July 13, 2017
As Simmons attempted to get her life back in order, the lawyers she worked with encouraged her to pursue higher education—more specifically law school.
“I decided that if I was having all of these problems and I have some education in my background, and I have some other privilege, that there’s a lot of people that are suffering,” she said.
The following year she was accepted to Seattle University Law School.
Following her lawyers’ advice, she applied to and was accepted into law school.
Commerce Reentry Council Director Christopher Poulos @chrispouloslaw & co-chair @TarraSimmons5 w/@GovInslee after signing of SB 6582, which removes barriers to #highered for people who have been involved with the criminal justice system. pic.twitter.com/aJZMy6AHlL
— WA Commerce (@WAStateCommerce) March 16, 2018
She excelled and became a model student. Simmons even received the prestigious Skadden Fellowship.
Simmons became only the second student from Washington to receive the fellowship, which has been around for nearly three decades.
“That was absolutely the most meaningful for me,” she told KING 5. “Nobody in 28 years from the school has been able to get that.”
She graduated from law school with honors.
— Seattle U Law School (@seattleulaw) May 13, 2017
However, despite all of her accolades, there was still something holding her back.
In order for her to sit for the Washington Bar Exam, she needed to pass a character and fitness review. Simmons’ review was flagged and looked over by the board, which chose—in a 6-3 decision—that she shouldn’t be allowed to take the bar exam.
“It’s very hard, personally for myself and for my children,” she told KNKX. “[It sends] a strong message to the community that second chances are really, really hard to get.”
Even though it was ruled she couldn’t take the bar exam, she appealed the decision.
Best. Christmas. EVER! pic.twitter.com/jVAwpuhAA0
— Tarra Simmons (@TarraSimmons5) December 25, 2017
Simmons appealed the board’s decision and months later the Supreme Court ruled she could take the bar exam.
“It is precisely Tarra’s lived experiences and the way in which she has made restitution and rebuilt her life that make her such a powerful and passionate advocate for justice-involved individuals who are seeking to re-enter society,” Annette Clark, dean of Seattle University Law School said in a statement following the ruling. “I look forward to the proud day when Tarra can take her place within the Washington State Bar.”
Now, she had one last hurdle: the exam.
In February 2018, she took the Washington Bar Exam and in mid-April she received the results. She passed!
After winning the appeal and passing the bar, Simmons was sworn in as an attorney.
— JustLeadershipUSA (@JustLeadersUSA) June 16, 2018
Finally, on June 16, the woman who was once surrounded by drugs and crime was sworn into the Washington State Bar.
“This day is the finale of a really long and hard journey that started when I was in prison,” she said at her swearing in ceremony, which was attended by family, friends, and supporters. “When I was at my lowest moment, I never thought it would be this amazing.”
Simmons plans to work with those who find themselves in similar situations and help them re-enter society after prison.