Last November, I flew to Washington state to support Tarra Simmons; a woman who, until then, I’d only known through Facebook and mutual friends. She and I have many things in common, not the least of which is having spent time in prison.
Tarra graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Dean’s Medal and received the coveted Skadden Fellowship, which is only rewarded to a handful of law students each year and provides recipients who plan to do public interest work a full-time salary and benefits. Upon graduating, Tarra began preparing for the bar exam.
The character and fitness board of the Washington state bar denied Tarra access to take the test. Other law students with criminal histories have taken the bar in Washington. With all of her hard-earned achievements, Tarra had no reason to believe she’d be rejected. She asked the Supreme Court of Washington to reverse the decision.
I watched from a distance, devastated, as Tarra fought for her right to the future she wanted. She became an example I could hold up in defense of our community of people who were once incarcerated, have served our time, and yet are, too often, blocked from moving forward.
I sat in the audience that day in November anxious and hopeful. As both sides argued the case before the Supreme Court justices, my emotions ran the full gamut. I listened as one of the members of the character and fitness board presented on the reasons for the decision and heard echoes of my own experiences. As she detailed the initial hearing, she brought up the number of times that Tarra had mentioned her Skadden Fellowship, versus how many times she had apologized for her past transgressions.
The testimony instantly struck me. It took me back to all of the employment trainings that taught us to accentuate the positive and turn the negative into a positive. It reinforced an idea that maybe we can never say sorry enough, or do enough to prove our worth. I was so thankful that one of the justices pointed out that anyone who had been through so much might be excited to talk about an achievement like receiving the Skadden Fellowship.
In 2010, after the death of her father, Tarra relapsed into drug use and was subsequently arrested. Upon her release, she began to cobble her life back together and eventually enrolled at Seattle University Law School.
The justices did something that day that they hadn’t done in decades. They returned a same day decision, unanimously opining that Tarra Simmons would indeed get to sit for the bar exam.
This April has been designated “Second Chance Month,” and, as such, it is fitting that we found out on April 13th that Tarra Simmons passed her bar exam. I am celebrating the idea of second chances with the hope that we can make policy changes to transform the lives of the millions of people swept up into our justice system—some of whom never really had a first chance.