Sunday, April 21, 2024

Returning to the Courtroom: Why Tarra Simmons, Mitchell Cozad, and Other Former Prisoners Become Attorneys


Few can deny that when a person is incarcerated, society’s expectations for them are dramatically lower. Whatever their crime, violent or not, they disappear into a prison system for months or years to come, and if we are honest, what happens to them during their time behind bars does not concern us much. Some prisoners will serve their time and upon their release, drift from job to job and perhaps become part of the country’s alarmingly high recidivism rate. Others, however, such as Shon Hopwood, Jarret Adams, and Mitchell Cozad, find their purpose while incarcerated: they decide to become attorneys, use their legal acumen to help others, and contribute to the very society that often looks down on them.  

What is it that drives former prisoners to turn to the law as their career? They are, after all, the exception, not the rule. Tara Simmons has been quoted as saying that the National Justice Impact Bar Association, which helps people convicted of crimes to become attorneys, “is aware of about 100 attorneys around the country who have been admitted to practice law despite past convictions.” There are approximately 1.3MM attorneys in the United States, so when you do the math, that means that nearly 8 out of 100,000 attorneys have a criminal record, though they may not have been incarcerated. The point, however, is clear: very few people who are sent to prison return to the courts as practicing lawyers. 

By looking deeper at those who do, we may find insights into the potential of the incarcerated and be able to assess how our prison system might help them to realize it. 

Jarret Adams  

As a teenager, Jarrett Adams was sentenced to 28 years for a rape he did not commit. In prison, he was determined to fight his wrongful conviction, and he began learning everything he could about the appellate process. Eight years into his sentence, Jarrett Adams learned his case had been overturned. His wrongful conviction inspired him to attend Chicago’s Loyola Law School, where he joined a project focused on potential wrongful convictions. After being admitted to the bar in July 2016, he has his own criminal defense practice and is the co-founder of the nonprofit Life After Justice.  

Tarra Simmons   

In 2001, Tarra Simmons was convicted of second-degree assault. In 2011, Tarra Simmons went to prison for two and a half years for five convictions of theft and drug crimes. With a history of substance abuse, homelessness, bankruptcy, and juvenile crime, her future looked bleak. However, Tara Simmons decided to start her life over again when she was in prison, and she enrolled in law school. In 2017, she graduated from Seattle University School of Law. She was sworn in as an attorney in the State of Washington in 2018. In 2020, Tarra Simmons was elected to the Washington State Legislature. Her victory is assumed to be the first legislative race to be won by a felon in the state of Washington. 

Mitchell Cozad  

In 2004, Mitchell Cozad was a preferred walk-on football player at the University of Wyoming, where he was on the 2004 Las Vegas Bowl Championship team. Mitchell Cozad remained with the Cowboys until the summer of 2006, when he transferred to the University of Northern Colorado and received a scholarship. Late one night, Mitchell Cozad stabbed his teammate in a parking lot. Found guilty of second-degree assault in 2007, Mitchell Cozad spent nearly three years in the Colorado Department of Corrections. In prison, he saw that America’s criminal justice system focuses more on punishing the individual and less on helping their underlying issues. With this insight, he met in the library with other inmates who needed help drafting motions for post-conviction relief and appellate briefs. Mitchell Cozad decided to become an attorney so that he could help break the generational legacies of poverty, addiction, and incarceration. He ultimately earned his Juris Doctor degree at the University of Wyoming College of Law and today is a Deputy State Public Defender for the state of Colorado.   

Daniel Manville  

Daniel Manville was incarcerated from 1973-1976 for voluntary manslaughter. He and his brother assisted another student in recovering drugs and money that were believed to have been stolen at an apartment. When two visitors arrived unexpectedly, Daniel Manville used chloroform to render the victim and the visitors unconscious. One of the visitors died from an unusual reaction to the chloroform.  

Daniel Manville was ultimately sent to prison, where he continued to sell drugs. However, a few months into his sentence, he wondered if there was more to his life than just dealing drugs.   

Believing that education was the key to turning his life around, he committed himself to reading and learning everything he could. Upon his release in 1976, Daniel Manville went to law school, and when he applied for the Michigan Bar, one of his recommendation letters was written by the judge who had sentenced him to prison. At Michigan State University, he trains law students to litigate on behalf of inmates who have been treated unfairly by America’s criminal justice system.  

Reginald Betts  

When Reginald Betts was sixteen years old, he committed armed carjacking and was prosecuted as an adult. Sentenced to prison for nine years, where he spent fourteen months in solitary confinement, he began reading books and poetry and learned that words have the ability to free our minds. Upon his release from prison, Reginald Betts enrolled at Prince George’s Community College before earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. He then graduated from Yale Law School and went on to pass Connecticut’s Bar Exam. Reginald Betts is a published poet and writer and continues to speak to prison inmates, including where he served time. He has said that one of his motivations is to help young people who find themselves in prison find the motivation to do better in their lives.   

Christopher Poulos  

Christopher Poulos, who battled substance abuse and was for a time homeless, was in prison and a reentry facility for nearly three years on federal drug and firearm charges. While at the University of Maine School of Law, Christopher Poulos worked for The Sentencing Project and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Obama administration. After graduating from law school in 2016, he joined the University of North Texas as an adjunct professor of criminal justice and became the executive director of the Washington Statewide Reentry Council. 


Christopher Poulos has stated that despite the odds of practicing law, he persevered, refusing to define himself by his distant actions. He also humbled himself, listening to the counsel of others and following their suggestions. Christopher Poulos has used his legal skills to represent children who are facing criminal charges.  

Andres Idarraga  

At twenty years old, Andres Idarraga was incarcerated for drug dealing. His father had crossed the Rio Grande River and was an undocumented worker in Massachusetts. When he received his legalization papers due to Reagan’s policies, Andres Idarraga and other family members were able to join him, living in poverty in a Rhode Island town. While Andres Idarraga received a scholarship to attend a major prep school, he was resentful of the gap in wealth that he witnessed, and he dropped out. He eventually began dealing drugs and was arrested. Andres Idarraga realized that while his family had sacrificed to come to America, he himself hadn’t done anything with life. After prison, he attended both Brown University and Yale University, earning his law degree from the latter. Andres Idarraga interned with the U.S. House Judiciary Committee and the ACLU and passed the Florida Bar. Today, Andres Idarraga is the CEO at Creci, whose credit platform empowers individuals, supports communities, and protects the environment. 

TheArthur A. Duncan II  

TheArthur A. Duncan II lived in Los Angeles, where as a child he was surrounded by gangs and drugs. He was convicted of drug dealing and sent to federal prison, where he served three years before his release. TheArthur A. Duncan II decided to enroll in a New York community college, and when he was 43, he earned his law degree from the University at Buffalo in 2012. After passing the New York Bar, he worked for the City of Buffalo as its assistant corporation counsel. TheArthur A. Duncan II has said that after being given a second chance, he wants others to believe in their own possibility of success even though they may have made mistakes.  

Shon Hopwood 

At 23, Shon Hopwood could not foresee that while he was in prison for bank robbery, he would have one of his cases argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Shon Hopwood was from a small town in Nebraska, and one night in a bar, he agreed to rob a bank with his friend. Shon Hopwood, who was restless and frustrated by his life, ultimately robbed five banks before being apprehended by law enforcement. In prison, he found sanctuary in the legal library, where he developed his fascination with the law. As he learned about the system, he began helping other inmates with their cases. Three years later, Shon Hopwood wrote a legal brief for an inmate and got his case appealed before the U.S. Supreme Court. Shon Hopwood continued to win cases for inmates, and when he was released, he eventually studied the law at the University of Washington on a full scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. After clerking at the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Shon Hopwood landed a teaching fellowship at Georgetown Law’s Appellate Litigation Clinic, eventually becoming a law professor. He now advocates for judicial reform, including shorter sentences and more vocational training, drug treatment, and mental health counseling. 

The Common Thread Between Many Prisoners-Turned-Attorneys 

While each individual’s case and background are undeniably different, the common denominator appears to be a desire to serve a purpose larger than themselves. For former inmates such as Daniel Manville, Mitchell Cozad, and Tarra Simmons, their experiences behind bars seem to have heightened the very human desire to be productive members of society.   

For those of us who have never been incarcerated, perhaps the question goes deeper than simply asking why they chose to become attorneys. Instead, why were Andres Idarraga, TheArthur A. Duncan II, Mitchell Cozad, and others able to resist the negative influences of the prison system and come out on top? The psychological impact of imprisonment has been known to change a person, generally for the worse. Some prisoners have described it as emotionally numbing, making them more distant, more hardened, more withdrawn, and, ironically, better criminals.  

However, the people in this article resisted the dehumanizing impact of incarceration.  

They are proof that there are prisoners who want to live lives of productivity and meaning. It seems clear that American society could benefit from reevaluating both its legal system and the potential of those who are sent to prison. Perhaps in doing so, stories like those of Daniel Manville, Mitchell Cozad, Shon Hopwood, and Reginald Betts will become more common. For that to happen, however, we will have to let go of what we think we understand about the incarcerated and be willing to learn from them.

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