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Detainees leaving Cook County Jail will soon be able to apply for a free state ID on the way back to society.

Detainees leaving Cook County Jail will soon be able to apply for a free state ID on the way back to society. Part of the jail can be seen in this 2021 photo.

Pat Nabong

New state ID program for Cook County Jail detainees aims to ‘help people reintegrate’

Detainees on their way out of Cook County Jail will soon be able to take a key resource with them on the journey, under a first-of-its-kind ID program being launched this week by state and county officials.

Starting Monday, some detainees leaving jail custody on electronic monitoring will be handed a free state ID, a critical and often elusive stepping-stone that hasn’t been available to former inmates as they try to find housing, jobs and other foundations to rebuild their lives, officials and advocates say.

The pilot program announced by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias is thought to be the first in the nation offered to inmates at the county jail level.

About 2,300 people awaiting trial in Cook County will be eligible to apply for an ID in the first phase of the program, including about 1,800 already released on electronic monitoring and 500 poised to soon exit the jail, at 26th Street and California Avenue.

Dart told the Sun-Times he’s aiming to eventually offer ID applications during jail intake for all detainees ahead of trial, with the goal of giving them a better chance at turning things around when they’re heading back into the community.

State and federal prisons — where inmates’ release dates are concrete — have similar ID programs for people serving out sentences, but it’s a resource that’s just as vital to people waiting for their cases to play out from behind the jail walls, Dart said.

“For folks who come into our custody, an ID isn’t just a nice thing to have in your wallet. It’s the only way you can get a job, or a work permit, or find housing,” Dart said. “There are a million things this throws up artificial hurdles for.”

Dart’s office has tried for years to launch an ID program, but was tripped up by the “transience” of the jail’s population. While some are detained for months or years at a time, many are only held for a few days or even hours. Inmates would start an ID application and then be released before it was completed, the sheriff said.

“A lot of people who end up here don’t have IDs at all, or their belongings are being held as part of an investigation. Mom has all the vital documents, or Grandma. It gets complicated,” he said.

Under the new effort, officials have lined up detainees with established addresses, some who previously had an ID and others with access to vital documents — birth certificates or Social Security cards — to apply for their first-ever ID.

Illinois Secretary of State office workers have trained sheriff’s office staffers on taking ID photos and other procedures to process ID applications.

“It’s enormously important to provide ex-offenders with essential resources and tools, and hopefully make them self-sufficient,” Giannoulias said ahead of the announcement. “That’s how you help reduce recidivism and help people reintegrate into society.”

The program doesn’t require extra taxpayer dollars, according to Giannoulias, who said he would like to expand the program to other Illinois jails.

Many people leaving prison or jail re-enter society without any documentation, making it challenging to obtain any other forms of identification or apply for school, jobs or social services. It can then take weeks to get the paperwork they need to even start rebuilding their lives in earnest, advocates say.

“If we’re certain enough of a person’s identity to take away their liberty, we should be certain enough of who they are to give them an ID,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a civilian correctional oversight organization. “Giving people as much as we can to be able to live productively benefits them and our communities.”

Sodiqa Williams, senior vice president of reentry services at the Safer Foundation, called it “socially disabling” to re-enter civilian life without an ID.

“If you can give people housing, it cuts down on recidivism, and having an ID is paramount to finding housing,” Williams said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

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