By Bryant Jackson-Green
When some former offenders complete their sentences and exit prison, they’re missing one important thing: an ID.
In its first set of recommendations on criminal-justice reform, the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing and Reform explains: “For a newly-released inmate trying to reenter society, the importance of having a valid form of identification can hardly be overstated. Job applications, leases, phone service, and credit applications are all part of the re-integration process, and all require proof of identity and address.”
An unfortunate consequence of expanding federal and state ID requirements is that IDs are now a prerequisite for many essential activities in society, such as filling out job applications and signing leases, as the commission points out. Yet after serving a prison term, many offenders no longer have access to birth certificates or other forms of identification needed to obtain a state ID, which is required for employment in the state of Illinois.
Employment is one of the most important factors in keeping ex-offenders from re-entering the criminal-justice system. Bad state laws, such as occupational-licensing bans and the limited availability of record sealing, make finding meaningful work harder, however. Today, 45 percent of ex-offenders end up back in prison within three years of their release, but some jobs programs, like those run by the Safer Foundation, have recidivism rates as low as 16 percent.
The Illinois Identification Card Act does establish a program that lets former inmates exchange a prison ID for a state ID within 30 days after release. But problems with the implementation of this program – from an ex-offender’s difficulty reaching a facility that distributes the cards, to paying the $20 fee for the ID card right after release – have made this process harder than it needs to be.
Since ex-offenders have been in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections, or IDOC, the state of Illinois can already identify them. To make this process easier, the commission suggests having IDOC coordinate with the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office, which issues state IDs, and giving Illinois IDs to inmates as they leave, thereby avoiding the problems that arise under the current system.
With proper IDs, former offenders will be better able to secure employment and housing, enroll in school, open bank accounts, travel and perform other basic tasks essential to establishing a normal life. The fewer barriers there are in the re-entry process, the more likely it is that ex-offenders will be able to successfully transition to post-prison life and employment after release – and stay out of crime.