In August 2014, 15 months after she left prison, Tarra Simmons began her law degree at Seattle University. Just before she graduated this past summer, demoralizing news arrived: Her application to the Washington state bar had been rejected because of her past criminal convictions, and she wouldn’t be allowed to take the bar exam.
“Individuals serve time incarcerated. One would think once they’d done that, we would welcome them back into society and facilitate their reentry,” Annette Clark, dean of Seattle’s law school, told me in an interview. “Because these are folks we need—I think we need Tarra Simmons as a lawyer.”
Simmons’ experience is common for aspiring attorneys with criminal records. In many states, they routinely have their applications delayed or rejected because of requirements that they demonstrate good moral character and fitness to practice law. In theory, and understandably, these policies are intended to protect the public from corrupt representation. That’s the Washington bar’s argument for keeping them in place: “Clients put a huge amount of trust and responsibility, unchecked, into the hands of their lawyers,” the bar’s chief regulatory counsel told me.
But the rules nevertheless create collateral punishments that can endure years after a person’s sentence formally ends and can hinder professional achievement among those who have already shown a capacity for rehabilitation. Reformers argue that even the most exceptional candidates have difficulty meeting state bars’ high and often ambiguous standards, shutting out potential lawyers who may know the legal system better than their peers.