Once convicted, now they make law in U.S. statehouses

Legislators described difficult upbringings, their paths out of the criminal justice system, and how their life experiences now inform their work.
Washington State Rep. Tarra Simmons (D), on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, at her home in Bremerton, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Since Rep. Tarra Simmons (D) in 2021 became the first formerly incarcerated legislator in Washington State, a string of people have been elected to state legislatures who openly discuss their own histories with the criminal justice system and advocate for fellow justice-involved citizens.

Those lawmakers are New York Assemblymember Edward Gibbs (D), Kentucky Rep. Keturah Herron (D), and Rhode Island Reps. Cherie Cruz (D) and Leonela Felix (D).

In interviews with Pluribus News, each of the legislators described difficult upbringings, their paths out of the criminal justice system, and how their life experiences now inform their work as lawmakers.

“The fact we’ve gone from zero in 2020 to five now validates why I did this,” said Simmons, 45, a former nurse who served time in prison after a drug-related conviction and has since become an attorney.

The emerging trend happening across the country comes as voter attitudes shift amid the expansion of re-enfranchisement laws aimed at giving convicted individuals a second chance.

While criminal records remain a barrier to voting and holding public office in several states, momentum has grown for so-called second chance laws. In 2019, 11 states made it easier for individuals to restore their voting rights, according to tracking by the Collateral Consequences Resource Center.

Today, 23 states automatically restore voting rights upon a person’s release from prison, 14 states restore rights after completion of parole or probation and 11 states revoke voting rights indefinitely, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Rules vary state-to-state on whether someone with a past criminal conviction can run for public office.

As a 16-year-old in the mid-1980s, Gibbs killed a man in what he described as an act of self-defense. On advice of his attorney, Gibbs said he pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served five-and-a-half years in prison.

Gibbs, 54, who is Black, later got his rights restored, became a community advocate and eventually got involved in party politics. He was elected as a Democratic Party district leader in East Harlem before running last year to fill a vacant seat in the state legislature.

Now, as a state lawmaker, Gibbs said he is working to enact legislation to help people in the criminal justice system. That includes passage this year of a bill to require that people leaving jail be given information on how to register to vote.

“I went from breaking the law to now making the law,” said Gibbs, who became the first formerly incarcerated person to serve in the New York legislature.

Gibbs also cosponsored “CleanSlate” legislation that passed in the waning hours of the legislative session to allow people to have their criminal records sealed after a certain number of years of good behavior.

Gibbs said lawmakers who have experienced the criminal justice system offer a unique perspective, but he also said he feels pressure as the only formerly incarcerated lawmaker in the legislature.

“People are watching, people are hoping that you fail,” Gibbs said.

In Rhode Island, Cruz and Felix said they rely on each other for support and work as a team on key issues. They are also working on “Clean Slate” legislation, as well as reforms to the state’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and solitary confinement policies.

“[It] doesn’t make me feel as alone…I don’t have to explain myself so much,” said Felix, who was first elected in 2020.

Both women experienced challenging upbringings and ended up with drug-related convictions when they were young. Those records have since been expunged.

Felix, 35, who is Dominican-American, said she kept her past involvement in the criminal legal system a private matter until she decided to run for office.

“If I was going to put myself out there and tell the voters, ‘You should vote for me’ … they should have the whole story. … They shouldn’t be blindsided by anything,” Felix said.

In the end, it was not a liability. She won a seat that had previously been held by a retired police detective.

“What that says to me [is] society is changing … and it brings me a lot of hope,” said Felix, who, like Simmons, earned a law degree following her conviction.

The shift to allow more second chances comes amid growing recognition of the lasting consequences of a criminal conviction on people’s ability to secure housing and work and otherwise fully participate in society.

After her conviction, Cruz, 51, who is white, attended community college and was then admitted to Brown University where she received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. But her record continued to haunt her.

“I could not get a job,” Cruz said. “That meant … I stayed on welfare; I stayed on food stamps even though I had two Ivy League degrees.”

Her record was expunged in 2012.

As a lawmaker, Cruz said her focus is on getting the legislature to adopt laws that make it easier for people with criminal records to reintegrate into society. She said sharing her story helps make the case to her fellow lawmakers.

“It gives a face to my colleagues in the legislature who I’m serving with that … we’re one of you,” Cruz said.

When Keturah Herron was first elected to the Kentucky House in 2022, it was her identity as the first openly LGBTQ member that made headlines. But there was more to her story.

In the mid-2000s, Herron reluctantly pleaded guilty to a harassment charge on the promise that her record would be expunged if she completed a court-mandated series of classes, which she did.

Herron, who is Black, went on to get a master’s degree and worked extensively with youth in juvenile detention, mental health facilities and after-school programs. But she too could not escape her record. A decade later when she tried to get a job with the foster care system in South Carolina, the conviction showed up on a background check. It had not been expunged.

When Herron moved back to Louisville, she started doing advocacy work for the ACLU. She also helped create a group called Smart Justice Advocates to lobby for criminal justice reform.

In 2020, Herron advocated for passage of a Kentucky bill to expunge a person’s criminal record if they are acquitted or the charges against them are dismissed. That same year, she played a key role in passage of a Louisville policy to ban no-knock warrants following the death of Breonna Taylor who was shot and killed by police.

Last year, Herron ran for and won a seat in the House in a special election.

“Now I am at the table,” Herron said. “I actually have a vote and that one vote matters and it counts.”

For Simmons, the Washington State lawmaker, the arrival of four more colleagues in America’s statehouses with similar stories is gratifying.

“That’s how we start to normalize people who’ve been incarcerated. … They are no longer just their worst mistake in life,” Simmons said.