I am a formerly incarcerated mother who—because of the help and kindness of so many lawyers who fought for me and educated me throughout my incarceration—am now an attorney and advocate helping to pave the way for the successful reentry of my justice-involved brothers and sisters. My story has been covered ad nauseam: rough childhood, drugs and alcohol, nursing school, incarceration, relapse, recovery, law school, a state supreme court case. I’ve been told over and over how exceptional I am. But I am not an exceptional person. I was simply given exceptional opportunities—opportunities that every incarcerated person should have.
In this session, our state legislature can extend those same opportunities to every Washingtonian by passing the Clean Slate Act into law. A bipartisan group of legislators led by Rep. Drew Hansen (D-23rd) and Morgan Irwin (R-31st) has introduced a bill that would put the legal system to work on behalf of those formerly incarcerated. The proposed law would automatically clear qualifying criminal records for people who remain crime-free for a set period of time. Everyone who qualifies gets a clean slate—regardless of whether they can afford a lawyer and expensive court fees and without having to navigate a complex court process.
To step back for a second: more than 1.2 million Washingtonians, the vast majority of whom have already served their sentences, are burdened by their criminal conviction records. According to a study by the Second Chance Gap Initiative of Santa Clara University Law School, over three-quarters of a million people with conviction records, or 60%, are eligible under current law to clear one or more convictions; 40% of those who could clear could clear their record entirely. But the process is wildly convoluted. As a result, according to the estimates, less than 5% of people eligible for relief are getting it, leaving a whopping 95% of eligible Washingtonians in the ”second chance gap” between the remedy promised by law and its delivery. The scale of the problem cannot be overstated. To place the backlog in context: according to data provided by the Washington Courts only 1,973 charges were vacated by over 300 courts last year. That is fewer than 7 vacations per court per year. At this rate, it would take over 2,400 years to clear the backlog of eligible charges using the current method.
Having experienced the challenges of entering ordinary life after incarceration, I can definitively say re-entering everyday life was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Finding an employer willing to hire me, securing housing for me and my kids, fending off an ever-increasing amount of debt, working through the trauma caused by our criminal justice system, all while avoiding the pitfalls that landed me in prison in the first place. And I’m one of the lucky ones. Even with all the advantages I’ve been provided, I still can’t volunteer in my kids’ schools today because of my criminal record.
Too many of our communities are eroded by the justice system and never made whole again. Too often, our justice system is like an impossible maze: one with too many entrances and all the paths lead to dead ends. For too long, too many people have profited from the suffering of those locked up. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Working together, we can write a new chapter and begin to right the historic wrongs that have plagued the integrity of our state’s justice system. While the scale of the problem is almost too large to fathom, we know this policy works because it has been passed in places like Utah and Pennsylvania. In those states, we’ve seen how automating and accelerating the process improves the quality of life for families and helps strengthen communities.
In an era where it’s almost impossible to find bipartisan support for anything, the New Hope Act was unanimously passed out of the House and Senate last session. It established the legal rights for which the Clean Slate Act will fully fund. On a systemic level, we need to keep in mind that even when we achieve success in our policy reform efforts, the devil remains in the details. Funding for the policies that are supposed to help people in need is frequently separated from the legislation establishing a legal right. The Clean Slate Act represents a practical and necessary step towards fulfilling the promise of opportunity for millions of Washingtonians who’ve done their time and held up their end of the bargain. Now is the time to do our part.
We unequivocally believe and know—as evidenced by personal experience and, now, by academic studies—that the Clean Slate Act is a necessary remedy to our justice system, which all too often punishes too many vulnerable people for life. We call on the state legislators to do what they promised to do last session and pass the Clean Slate Act today.
Tarra Simmons is a lawyer, Director of Civil Survival, and a candidate for Washington State House of Representatives in the 23rd Legislative District.