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Rauner Signs Law Allowing IDs for Released Inmates

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a law Thursday meant to make it easier for people leaving prison can get state IDs.

The legislation is based on a recommendation from the governor’s commission tasked with reducing the state’s prison population. It would allow people leaving prison to obtain a state ID at the time of their release. 

Not having legal identification is a major hurdle for ex-offenders looking to get their lives on track, according to justice reform advocates and former prisoners.

Bernita Riley said she has been to prison four times.

She said when she got out, she couldn’t get a job or housing because she didn’t have an ID.

“You can’t even go to a food pantry now without your state ID,” Riley said. “And being incarcerated in the state, they have all your information, they take your DNA, they do your fingerprints, so they have all the information needed for you to get your state ID.”

That’s been the argument of advocates like Jennifer Vollen-Katz, who is the executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group.

“If we as a state are certain enough of someone’s identity that we can deny them liberty, then we should also be certain enough of their identity to get them a state ID upon release,” Vollen-Katz said.

But this new law still requires prisoners to present a birth certificate or social security card to get an ID. Vollen-Katz said that is a problem because the law doesn’t provide any help getting those documents.

At the time, Vollen-Katz had high hopes for the bill making its way through the Illinois state senate. But now, she said it doesn’t do anything to address the fundamental problem.

She said that means more people who get out of prison will end up going back.

“We’re asking people to re-enter society and be productive. Well, if we’re not even giving people the tools to apply for a job, how is that possible?” Vollen-Katz said.

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White said his office will help prisoners get ahold of their birth certificate or social security card. And he said those documents are necessary because “a lot” of people in Illinois state prisons are there under fake names.

“We want to make sure they are who they say they are before we issue them an ID,” White said.

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections could not say how many people in the prisons are using their real names.

“Offenders in IDOC custody are identified by the documents the Department receives from the court,” she said in a statement.

The new law is one of the first legislative victories for the governor’s Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform. And almost every politician at Thursday’s bill signing talked about their frustration that it was so difficult to pass what they saw as an easy lift.

The legislation was introduced in February, and didn’t get approval until this month’s veto session.

State Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, called the legislation “low hanging fruit.”

“It seems so fundamental that...it’s a wonder that we’ve struggled getting to this point,” Raoul said. “With the work that we have to do in the interest of public safety, in the interest of reducing recidivism, in the interest of welcoming back returning citizens, the fact that we’ve done this with a lot of strain concerns me.”

Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow him at @pksmid.

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