Tarra Simmons is one of those voices, running for a state representative seat in Washington. Simmons, like many others, found herself addicted to opiates after a serious injury led to dependence on painkillers. Charges for drug dealing, theft and weapons possession followed, leading to almost two years behind bars.
Being incarcerated is part of her story and her identity, and she’s using it as an asset. “I went to prison. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I understand how people end up there,” Simmons says. As lawmakers try to reform policing and justice, it’s vital to have that perspective represented in state capitals and Congress.
Prison is not the only experience Simmons brings to the race. She was an ER nurse prior to her incarceration, and afterward earned a law degree and started a civil rights nonprofit. She understands the public health, policing, and economic crises facing her community, and says she wants to “prevent [incarceration] from happening to begin with.”
Some states restrict former inmates from serving in government or holding public office. Illinois, Alabama, West Virginia, and Delaware all deny or limit that privilege. The media may also focus solely on an ex-inmate’s record, as opposed to his or her platform. And fundraising during a pandemic, especially for first-time candidates, is difficult, with traditional activities like canvassing and rallies off-limits.
Despite these challenges, candidates are finding ways to participate. Keeda Haynes, a former public defender who served four years in federal prison, is running for Congress in Tennessee. First, she had to petition a court to restore her civil rights, a hurdle she knows many other felons face, too. “This is an opportunity to change the narrative and have tough, hard conversations about barriers to reentry,” she said.
Former inmates can have trouble finding jobs or housing — or even life insurance — because of their felony records. Ex-inmates running for office understand that and can advocate for the restoration of rights.
Angela Stanton-King is running for Congress as a Republican in Georgia’s 5th District. She supports restoring the right to vote for anyone with a felony on their record after prison.
Voters have rarely heard from candidates who’ve experienced the criminal justice system firsthand. But with a newly invigorated conversation about justice reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death, it may be the right time for those perspectives. A majority of both Democratic and Republican voters say they’d more likely vote for someone who “supports criminal justice reform.”
The ongoing protests fueled by Floyd’s killing at the hands of police have laid bare the inequity of a justice system that more deeply impacts the poor and communities of color. Candidates who’ve experienced that divide firsthand may be better prepared to help write the laws affecting those under the control of the system. “You have a lot of well-intentioned advocates who are trying to push criminal justice reform,” said Simmons, “but they can’t know it as intimately as people who have survived it.”
Kevin Harris is running for a state seat in Detroit, after his experience serving on the outgoing representative’s staff. He finished a 14-year sentence in 2006. “One third of all Americans have some kind of criminal record. Almost every family has been touched by it,” he says. So now it’s more important than ever for candidates like him to “have a bigger bullhorn.”
The question now, says Haynes: Are voters ready for members of Congress and state representatives with a felony record? Election Day 2020 will be a real litmus test of voters’ acceptance of a candidate’s criminal past. “I don’t think it’s going to be the deciding factor,” Haynes said. Voters may be more interested in what a candidate can do for their community going forward.
Regardless of the outcome, a candidate openly discussing a criminal past can be liberating to some. Many former inmates may “come out” sooner and share their mistakes, as office-seekers use their experience to improve their communities. Removing that stigma, says Kelly Olson, a civic organizer, “makes me realize our stories do matter.”
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