Fee Waivers for Birth Certificates and State ID Cards for Illinois’ Prisoners is Smart Policy and a Wise Investment
Today is an important day for those in need of a second chance in Illinois, because one of the barriers many individuals leaving prison face in trying to lead productive, law abiding lives has been removed. The John Howard Association (JHA) applauds Governor Bruce Rauner for signing Senate Bill 1413 (SB 1413) into law. This new law allows men and women to receive their birth certificate for no fee upon their release from the Department of Corrections, which removes one of the largest obstacles for returning citizens to obtain state identification cards (state ID) once they leave prison. If a person does not have or cannot get the necessary underlying documentation, like a birth certificate, it is not possible to get a permanent state ID. Further, the cost of getting a certified copy of a birth certificate, the difficulty of navigating layers of state bureaucracy, and confusion over the documentation needed to obtain a birth certificate from the Department of Vital Records pose high hurdles for those leaving prison. Having a state ID is one of the keys to reentry success for our returning citizens. Without a state ID, a person cannot apply for housing, a job, Medicaid, food assistance, enroll in educational programming, or even enter many treatment programs to address mental health and substance abuse issues. Providing returning citizens with free copies of birth certificates is an important prerequisite to helping them to obtain the state IDs they need to access critical reentry services.
As Illinois’ only independent, non-partisan prison watch dog organization, JHA is keenly aware of prejudice and injustice embedded in our prison and criminal justice systems. The challenges that men and women face inside prison – lack of access to healthcare, mental health care, substance abuse treatment, job training, education, and social services— do not abate when prisoners walk out the institutional doors to reenter society. Indeed, on reentering the community, men and women face the added burdens of procuring basic provisions necessary for daily survival —like housing, clothing, food, and transportation. In order to give people a better chance of success and access to critical support when they return to their communities, JHA has long advocated that free state ID cards be provided to all returning citizens. Giving men and women free copies of their birth certificates is a critical step towards achieving this goal, as it removes one of the barriers to obtaining a state ID.
The new law, paired with Public Act 99-907 which similarly waives the fee for state ID cards for exiting Illinois prisoners, will help to increase the number of returning citizens who are able to acquire permanent state IDs. In turn, this can help increase the chances for returning citizens to access the services and social supports needed to forge law abiding, productive lives that contribute to the community’s well-being. JHA is thankful that Illinois is taking concrete steps to ensure that reentering citizens are not precluded from applying for jobs, housing or supportive services simply because they cannot afford to get a state ID. Declarations of support for prisoner rehabilitation and reentry are meaningless absent actual state investment in the programs, services and tools, such as state IDs, that returning citizens need in order to invest in their own futures. People who have jobs, reasonable access to food, clothing, healthcare, and housing are much less likely to reoffend and return to prison. By investing in rehabilitative resources and supports for returning citizens we ultimately invest in ourselves by making our communities, healthier, stronger and safer places to live.
SB 1413, which was unanimously approved in both chambers of the General Assembly, amends The Vital Records Act, which currently provides that the State Registrar of Vital Records shall search birth records upon request for a $10 fee The State Registrar can then issue a certified copy of the birth certificate upon request, for an additional $5 fee. This provides a one-time waiver of the $10 and $5 fees for a person seeking a birth certificate upon release on parole, mandatory supervised release, final discharge, or pardon from the Department of Corrections if the person presents a prescribed verification form from the Department of Corrections verifying the released person’s date of birth and social security number.
A commitment to helping people succeed when they leave prison is an investment in our most precious resource in Illinois, our citizens. Making it possible for every man and woman leaving state custody to get an ID card is smart policy and a wise investment that we at JHA have fought for and whole-heartedly endorse.