Seattle University School of Law student Tarra Simmons
Seattle University School of Law student Tarra Simmons (Matt Hagen)

Tarra Simmons’ life has taken a U-turn. As Seattle University School of Law’s first-ever Skadden Fellow, she enrolled in a J.D. program after a 20-month stint in prison for drug offenses. The former nurse, encouraged to attend law school by the attorneys who helped her get her life back on track, will soon spend two years working in public interest, thanks to the prestigious Skadden program that awarded 30 fellowships in 2017.

Serving time gave Simmons a firsthand look at the shortcomings of the criminal justice system—a perspective few lawyers have—including what she sees as a lack of empathy for low-income defendants, few true rehabilitation options for drug-addicted inmates, and a myriad of roadblocks for people trying to re-establish their lives with a conviction on their records.

It’s those very problems she aims to tackle as a Skadden Fellow, where she will be working in the Seattle-based Public Defender Association on prisoner re-entry issues and policy advocacy. We recently caught up with Simmons to discuss her fellowship, her time in prison, and her path to law school. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

From prison to law school is an unusual path. Why did you decide to pursue law, and how did you make that happen?

I decided to pursue law when I was released from prison because I was unable to find a job due to my criminal record. Although the Department of Health allowed me to keep my registered nurse’s license, no one wanted to give me a job. I was also facing other civil issues related to my conviction. I had mentors who were lawyers who helped me with my conviction issues and told me this was possible. They led me down a good career path, so I didn’t have to worry about someone hiring me. I had a lot of support and help to overcome barriers.

What was your reaction when you found out you were awarded a highly sought-after Skadden Fellowship?

I was so excited, I just cried, I laughed. I called so many people who were all waiting with me and supporting me. I was the first ever from my school in 28 years to get that, so it was a big moment not just for me but for my family, my school and my community.

How did you land in prison to begin with?

I was addicted to drugs and it started with a doctor prescribing me narcotics and increasing the dosage. I was suffering from chronic pain. I had a fracture. I was suffering with depression and not able to keep up with my daily demands. One doctor was giving me amphetamines and another was giving me opiates. Prescription drugs started my addiction, and when my father passed in 2010, family members kept coming around who I had not seen in a long time and were drug users.

Do you have any concerns that your criminal history will impede your ability to be admitted to the bar or land a legal job? Or that people might make assumptions about you because of your background?

Yes, I think that people do make assumptions and do judge me based on my past, but I tend to draw myself to people who understand and support me.

What do you wish people better understood about what it’s like to serve time in prison?

I had a lot of time to work on myself and I got to the root of my pain. I do wish that people knew that individuals are redeemable, and that our society put in place so many collateral consequences that make it difficult for a person to ever come back and live up to their potential. So we need to do something about helping those who earned it get a second chance.

If you had the power to change one thing about our criminal justice system, what would it be?

I would like to go back before people were even convicted, and actually treat poverty, mental illness and addiction with the appropriate support instead of the criminal justice system.

Tell me more about what you’ll be doing as a Skadden Fellow.

I will be helping people who are formally justice involved, to overcome legal barriers to re-entry. Sometimes this means helping people to waive their court fines and fees that are thousands of dollars, or clearing their record, if they’re eligible. Reunifying families through family law. I will be doing holistic legal help, but will also be connecting people to resources, and advocating in the legislature for policy change.

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