Ex-Offender Identification Issues in Michigan
The Problem of Ex-Offender Identification
When offenders are released from Michigan prisons they do not receive regular state identification documents, such as a personal identification card or driver's license. Rather, prisoners are issued a parolee ID card, which states that the card is issued by the Department of Corrections, and which contains a prison photo, the parolee's identification number, and (in small letters) the parolee's name. Some prisoners are released without even a parole ID card perhaps because they are not subject to post-release supervision.
Ex-offenders cannot exchange their ID cards for a state identification card or driver's license. In fact, while the Secretary of State accepts photo identification cards issued by any other Michigan governmental agency as one form of acceptable identification (out of the three required to obtain a new license or state ID card), the Secretary of State will not accept any identification issued by the Department of Corrections. Some social service agencies that work with ex-offenders estimate that their clients typically spend four months tracking down the documentation necessary to obtain ID.
During the time that they are without ID, many ex-offenders are unable to find work or housing. Without income, ex-offenders are unable to pay restitution, supervision fees, or child support. Moreover, they are much more likely to engage in new crimes. Research shows that the first weeks after release are critical in preventing recidivism. Research also shows that employment and stable housing are critical in preventing ex-offenders from returning to a life of crime. (For example, every 10% increase in wages is correlated with a 10-20% decrease in criminal activity). Ex-offenders who do find work cannot cash their paychecks because Parolee IDs are not accepted by banks. Ex-offenders cannot even access any money they earned in prison, since those funds are sent to the ex-offender (often via the parole officer) in the form of a check. Without access to funds earned in prison and without the ability to obtain employment until they get their IDs, ex-offenders have few legal means to obtain the money they need to meet their basic needs or their financial obligations to the court, their victims, and their children.
The lack of identification is not only one of the most significant barriers that ex-offenders face. It is also a significant public safety concern. Ex-offenders should be able to prove their identity to law enforcement officials, and the community should not have to worry that there are a large number of ex-felons in the community without proper ID.
The Case of One Ex-Offender
"Fred" is a current client of Western Michigan Legal Services who was recently paroled after spending 15 years in prison. He is anxious to get a job, and start a new life. But he has found it impossible to find work when all he can present to prospective employers is a parolee ID. Fred does not know how he is supposed to survive until he does find work. He was released with $15 from his prison trust account. Eventually he will receive a check for the remaining $60 he earned as a prison baker. But he knows he will not be able to cash that check once it comes, because he does not have ID. Fred is not sure how he is supposed to survive until he can find a job. Right now he does not even have enough money to take the bus to appointments with his parole officer (he walks an hour each way), and cannot apply for jobs that he cannot reach on foot.
Fred is also worried because one of the conditions of his parole is that he obtain a driver's license or state ID card. So far Fred's parole officer has been understanding. But Fred still does not want to violate the conditions of his parole. Fred has repeatedly tried to get a personal identification card or driver's license, but the Secretary of State requires three forms of ID, and will not accept Fred's parolee ID as one of them. Fred is luckier than many ex-offenders, because he does have a copy of his birth certificate and high school records. But he has no way to get a third piece of documentation on the Secretary of State's ID list. He was never married nor divorced, so he does not have a marriage license or divorce decree. He does not have a passport or military ID. He is a U.S. and Michigan citizen, so he does not have immigration documents or out-of-state ID. And he has never owned a car, so he does not have a title. There appears to be no way for Fred to meet the Secretary of State's requirements, and he may have to live indefinitely without identification. Without ID, Fred's chances of making a smooth transition to community life are seriously diminished.
Fred wishes that he could have spent that last three weeks just looking for work, rather than trying to get the ID he needs in order to get such work, not to mention meet the conditions of his parole. Fred is also confused about why it is impossible for him to get an ID. After all, he says, they have my fingerprints, blood, and DNA. When I was in prison, they knew exactly who I was.
What Other States Are Doing
The Oregon Solution: Inter-Agency Cooperation
In Oregon, state agencies including the Department of Corrections, Department of Motor Vehicles, and Department of Social Services B have been cooperating to increase the chances that released prisoners will successfully reenter the community. Currently, the DMV accepts parolee identification when issuing regular state identification. Moreover, new legislation is in the works to allow the DOC's digital identification card to be renewed (with an updated photo) upon release and used by ex-offenders for identification purposes.
According to Scott Taylor, of the Oregon Department of Corrections, given the state's current budget crisis, DOC believes that it may be able to overcome turf issues entirely, and to provide state ID cards directly to inmates prior to release. This will make it much easier for released inmates to begin their job search immediately. And, as Mr. Taylor points out, the state could conceivably save money if state identification cards were issued by DOC. Currently the system results in unnecessary duplication, with DOC officials issuing one form of ID, and DMV officials issuing another one B costing twice as much in machines and staff time. Oregon has also specifically addressed the problem that ex-offenders have in cashing checks during the time period before they have acquired regular ID. Approximately 30 days before release, an Oregon Trail Card account is opened for the inmate. The system used is the same electronic debit card system through which food stamps and welfare are paid. (In Michigan, recipients of food stamps or cash assistance also access their funds through an electronic debit card, called a Bridge card.) Shortly before an inmate's release, the funds in an inmate's trust account are transferred to his Oregon Trail Card. Once released, ex-offenders can access their accounts through ATMs, giving them the necessary cash to pay for basic needs, as well as begin payments on restitution, supervision fees, and child support. Oregon DOC official Scott Taylor reports that the Oregon Trail Card system not only makes the transition easier for ex-offenders, but has also saved the Oregon DOC money. The debit card system is cheaper than printing and mailing checks.
The Illinois Solution: Allowing Ex-Offenders to Exchange Department of Correction's Identification for Regular State ID
Until Illinois passed legislation in 2000 to address the ex-offender ID issue, Illinois faced problems similar to those in Michigan. Under the new legislation, however, ex-offenders can quickly get regular ID. The Department of Corrections issues an identification card to all offenders upon release. This ID card is valid for 30 days. The format of the ID card is jointly decided upon by the Department of Corrections and the Secretary of State's office. After release, the ex-offender may exchange the DOC ID for a standard Illinois Identification Card issued by the Secretary of State.
Other States: Trusting the Department of Corrections
In Michigan, the Secretary of State accepts picture IDs from other governmental agencies, except for IDs issued by the Department of Corrections. By contrast, in many other states including, among others, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Washington State prison release documents are accepted as identification for the purposes of obtaining a state identification card or driver's license. In many cases, the DOC documentation accepted by the Secretary of State is not even a photo ID, but rather is a discharge sheet or copy of the parole restrictions. Although the practice varies from state to state, typically the state requires one or two additional pieces of documentation (such as a birth certificate) in addition to prison release documentation.
This solution is significantly better than current practice in Michigan, but it does not solve the problem entirely. Because offenders often have unstable histories and because their property is often lost while they are incarcerated, many released prisoners will not have any identification documentation other than that issued by the Department of Corrections. Therefore, unless DOC can issue IDs or DOC IDs can be converted into regular IDs, many ex-offenders will still spend the first critical weeks or months of their return to society without ID.
The lack of identification for ex-offenders presents a major barrier to successful reentry by released prisoners, and therefore also a significant threat to public safety. Yet this problem should be easy to resolve (particularly in cases where an inmate's identity is not in doubt) either by allowing the DOC to issue IDs or by ensuring that DOC IDs can be easily converted into regular state IDs. (In cases where an offender has used an alias, the DOC and Secretary of State could collaborate to determine what constitutes acceptable proof of identity. For example, a fingerprint/DNA match could be used, or the offender could be required to provide additional identification documentation before being issued ID. Questions about an individual's identity should be easier to answer while the individual is incarcerated than after release.) Providing a debit card through which ex-offenders could access their prison trust accounts would also help alleviate the problem that ex-offenders have in cashing checks, while giving them the funds to make it through the first critical weeks without resorting to crime. Moreover, these solutions would not only reduce recidivism, enhance public safety, and promote ex-offender reintegration, but could also save the state money.
This article appears courtsey of Legal Aid of Western Michigan