Testimony on Exiting Prisoners and State IDs

House Judiciary Criminal Committee
Consideration of SB 3368
November 29, 2016
Testimony of Jennifer Vollen-Katz, Executive Director
John Howard Association

Hello, my name is Jennifer Vollen-Katz and I am the Executive Director of the John Howard Association.  John Howard is Illinois’ only prison watchdog, we are a not for profit, non partisan, independent organization that monitors our prison facilities, policies and practices.

Thank you, Chairman Sims and the entire House Judiciary Criminal Committee for allowing me to testify today.  The John Howard Association is very familiar with the issues facing prison inmates, both while they are inside our institutions and when they leave.  In Illinois we are in agreement that setting people up for success upon release, assisting them to become productive, law abiding members of society is our foremost goal.

Having a State id is very important to being a productive member of society.  A State id is needed to:

  1. Apply for a job

  2. Sign a lease or apply for subsidized housing

  3. Qualify for benefits

  4. Cash a check

  5. Enroll in substance abuse treatment

For people leaving prison, having a State id is an important tool for successfully reentering their community.  They need to have an id for all the above reasons, and often getting a State id is listed as a specific condition of a person’s mandatory supervised release.  But it is often an administratively heavy lift for someone who has been in state custody to actually get a State id.

Why? There are a few reasons: often inmates do not have their birth certificate, social security card, a passport, school records, medical records, military service papers, or any of the other documents that are considered acceptable documents for purposes of identification verification by the Secretary of State’s office.  And often getting a hold of these documents can be complicated, time consuming, and costly.  These obstacles often stand between a recently released individual and having a State id.  At John Howard Association, we have walked through this process with recently released inmates in order to better understand the difficulties these individuals face in trying to get a State id and we have been taken aback, as lawyers and educated professionals, at how hard and expensive it can be to get these underlying identification documents.

In the report released in January of this year by the Governor’s Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, it was recommended that the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) and the Secretary of State be required to ensure inmates have a State identification card upon release at no cost to the inmates, when their release plan contemplates Illinois residence. The Commission also recommended that IDOC report in its Annual Report the percentage of offenders released from custody without a valid official State Identification card or some other valid form of identification.

It seems there is no disagreement in Illinois about the importance of people leaving state custody getting a State id, and there seems to be universal recognition that the State should waive the fee of getting a State id for this group of people.  Both of these steps are important and mark progress on this issue.  But the legislation this Committee is discussing today, Senate Bill 3368, fails to provide some of the procedures necessary to ensure that as many returning Illinois citizens as possible get State id cards.  Research, experience, and the results of other states that have changed their processes for getting State id cards for former inmates prove this.  Those states that have had success in securing increased numbers of State ids for inmates upon release have mandated interstate agency collaboration and that a lead agency take responsibility for securing each individual’s underlying identification documents.  Some of these states have also expanded the reporting requirements so that the Department of Corrections provides information annually about how many people who left their custody got an id, how many did not, and what the reasons were for not getting an id for those who did not.  This information provides more insight into what barriers remain to getting a State id and what needs to be done to remove them.

SB 3368 creates a 90 day time frame for those leaving state custody to get these underlying identification documents on their own and bring them to their local Department of  Motor Vehicles office (the DMV is the arm of the Secretary of  State’s office that processes Illinois identification cards) in order to apply for a permanent State id card.  It allows these individuals to use a verification form provided by IDOC or the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) for providing proof of residency, which does help address an existing barrier to securing a State id.  But this 90 day window does not lessen the difficulty or expense these individuals face in getting a birth certificate, social security card, or the other acceptable identification documents.

Positively, this legislation:

  • Provides a fee waiver for people leaving prison to get a State id card.

  • Allows proof of residency to be satisfied by a verification form executed by IDOC or IDJJ.

  • There is a reporting mechanism is included in the legislation.

But there are also some important provisions that are missing from or make this bill less impactful than it could, and should, be:

  • Getting underlying identification documents is difficult and costly; this part of the process is where the help for people leaving prison is most needed and is not included in the legislation.

  • A 90 day window of time does not help recently released inmates get or pay for the underlying identification documents, until IDOC, IDJJ or another State agency take on this responsibility it will remain difficult for people to get the IDs and thus not many will.

  • The annual reporting requirement in the bill should be expanded to include the number of people who get State ids, the number of people that do not get them, and what the reasons provided were for those who did not get a State id. This information will allow Illinois to address the parts of the process that need to be improved in order to increase successful outcomes.

Many legislators have indicated that this bill is just a beginning to revamping Illinois law on how people leaving IDOC or IDJJ get a State id.  I commend the legislators for these first steps, and hope that the commitment to improving this legislation in the coming session will be honored. Getting State ids for exiting inmates is critically important to keeping them from returning to prison - an id card allows someone to apply for a job and secure housing, a job and a place to live are key factors in reducing recidivism and reincarceration.  Helping exiting inmates get State ids is an important step in reforming our criminal justice system, in reducing Illinois’ incarcerated population by 25% in ten years, and improving outcomes for people leaving prison and for society as a whole.

Thank you.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz
Executive Director
John Howard Association
jvollen@thejha.org; (312) 291-9555

Allie Kelly2016