Since Democrat Tarra Simmons in 2021 became the first formerly incarcerated legislator in Washington State, a string of others 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 all Democrats, New York Assemblymember Edward Gibbs, Kentucky Rep. Keturah Herron, and Rhode Island Reps. Cherie Cruz and Leonela Felix. In interviews with Pluribus News, each described how their life experiences now inform their work as lawmakers. The emerging trend comes as voter attitudes shift amid the expansion of re-enfranchisement laws aimed at giving convicted people 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 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.
As a 16-year-old, Gibbs killed a man in what he described as an act of self-defense. Gibbs said he pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served five-and-a-half years in prison. Gibbs, 54, later had his rights restored, became a community advocate, and eventually got involved in party politics. Now, as a state lawmaker, Gibbs is working to enact legislation to help people in the criminal justice system. That includes the passage of a bill to require that people leaving jail be given information on how to register to vote. 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. 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. For Simmons, the Washington State lawmaker, the arrival of four more colleagues in 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.