Dominic Jones doesn’t have a felony, but the 15-year-old is haunted by one just the same.
His mother, Tarra Simmons, has a felony conviction from well over a decade ago. The conviction still creates barriers for their family, despite the fact that Simmons has stayed out of the criminal justice system and even received a law degree. A proposed state law, HB 1041, could change that by allowing Simmons to be eligible to have her conviction vacated from her criminal record. So Jones took his story to Olympia Thursday morning to testify in support of the bill.
“I am here today to remind you that children are silent victims of the laws that you guys create," Jones said. "It’s bad enough that children have to suffer when their parents are locked up in jail but right now it doesn’t stop there. Even after she got out nobody would rent to us. She’s always wanted to be part of my life and go on field trips but she’s never been allowed to, or even volunteer at my classes.”
Thursday morning was the first hearing this legislative session for HB 1041, a proposed state law that would make it easier for people to remove misdemeanors and felonies from their criminal record. Certain convictions are already eligible to be vacated, or removed from someone’s record, but this proposed law would greatly expedite the vacation process and expand the types of crimes that are eligible for vacation. Read the explanation of the bill here to find out more about which types of convictions are covered.
Rep. Drew Hansen, a Democrat from Bainbridge who is sponsoring the legislation, said he is supporting the bill so old convictions don’t burden people long after they’ve paid their debts to society.
“This bill makes it easier for people to clear their record when people have truly turned their lives around,” Hansen said.
Rep. Morgan Irwin, a Republican from Enumclaw co-sponsoring the legislation, said the proposed law would give an incentive for people to stay out of the criminal justice system.
“This is about giving people that have... made that mistake a reason to not make another one,” Irwin said at Thursday’s hearing.
The bill would not automatically clear anyone’s criminal record. People would still need to get a judge’s approval for each conviction to be vacated, but the bill would make it easier for people to go through the process and expand the types of criminal convictions that are eligible to be removed from people's records. Some serious crimes such as second-degree burglary and assault would now be eligible under the proposed law.
King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg also spoke in favor of the legislation Thursday morning, noting that the “collateral consequences” a person experiences from a conviction have nothing to do with public safety. Satterberg emphasized that people would still need to convince a judge to vacate their record.
“This is a reward for highly motivated people,” Satterberg said. “We shouldn’t stand in their way, we should encourage that.”
There is no official estimate for how many people could take advantage of vacating convictions, according to a financial statement attached to the bill.
Irwin, who is also a cop with the Seattle Police Department, said it took him a while to be comfortable with the legislation but eventually came to support giving people second chances based on his work as a police officer.
“I am a cop in a pretty rough neighborhood… and of those interactions, I have seen evil a couple of times, maybe. Most of the time you are dealing with folks who are just normal folks,” Irwin said.
Hansen said that the legislation is still being modified and a companion bill has not yet been filed in the Senate. He told me following Thursday’s meeting that he was feeling optimistic that the bill could pass this year after failing last year.
"It’s not every day that you have bipartisan support, Republicans and Democrats coming together on any issue much less criminal justice system reform," Hansen said. "And with that bipartisan backing, I feel hopeful. I feel hopeful that we will get this to the governor’s desk. But we tried last year and we couldn’t get it through, so if this was easy it would already be law."
Simmons, who has a nursing degree from the University of Washington and a law degree from Seattle University, tried to get a pardon but she said former Gov. Christine Gregoire refused her request. Simmons received news attention last year when she was required to get the Washington Supreme Court's permission to join the Washington State Bar because of her criminal record. She now works for the Public Defender Association.
Simmons said this proposed law has become her “life’s work.”
“It’s everything I have been fighting for,” Simmons said. “This bill also provides hope for a lot of people, so one day I will have a chance to become a nurse, to volunteer at my kid's school, to go travel to Canada. All of the ways that we are sentenced for life.”