Guest Commentary: State-ID bill ignores underlying issues

Guest Commentary: State-ID bill ignores underlying issues

By JENNIFER VOLLEN-KATZ

Earlier this month, when Senate Bill 3368, the state ID bill, passed both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly, legislators and the governor declared a victory. Some claimed that inmates will now leave prison with valid state IDs.

This is not the case.

SB 3368 does provide some positive changes. However, it by no means ensures that people leave prison with a permanent state ID in hand or even increases their likelihood of obtaining a permanent state ID after release.

The legislation provides that the secretary of state will waive the fee for getting an ID card, and it also allows proof of residency to be satisfied by a verification form executed by the state departments of Corrections or Juvenile Justice.

Additionally, SB 3368 requires that the Corrections Department annually reports to the General Assembly the number of inmates that leave state custody and get an ID card. These cursory measures are superficially beneficial, but they are not enough to make a real difference.

What Senate Bill 3368 fails to address is the major barriers that prevent Illinois inmates from obtaining permanent state ID cards upon release. It does not assist inmates in obtaining the underlying identification documents, like birth certificates and Social Security cards, needed to get a permanent state ID card. The bill provides returning inmates with temporary state IDs that can be used in place of a permanent ID for the 90 days following their release from prison.

On Day 91, however, returning inmates are again left stranded without valid, permanent state identification. The underlying problem that SB 3368 ignores is that few inmates have the independent capacity and funds to locate and pay for the identification documents needed to get a permanent ID on their own.

SB 3368 is shortsighted because it fails to provide inmates with the tools, information and financial resources to successfully navigate multiple, often-incomprehensible state and federal bureaucracies to obtain the ID documents necessary to obtain a permanent state ID.

Research, experience and the results of other states instruct us that having a corrections agency get birth certificates and Social Security cards for inmates and subsidizing or waiving the associated costs are the best ways to increase the number of former inmates who have permanent state ID cards. SB 3368 does not address these substantial impediments to ID procurement.

It seems there is no disagreement in Illinois about the importance of inmates getting state ID cards as they leave custody. There is widespread understanding that an ID is essential for someone to apply for a job or housing, enter treatment programs, and engage in other elements of social enfranchisement that are crucial to leading a law-abiding life. Recognizing that a permanent state ID is critical to success upon release, it is vital that the correctional agencies in Illinois be responsible for securing birth certificates and Social Security cards for the adult and youth inmates in their custody.

Until measures are put in place to provide inmates with easy access to their birth certificates and Social Security cards when released, Illinois' assertion of triumph in providing inmates leaving custody with state IDs will remain a hollow, unfulfilled promise.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz is executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois.

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