PPI Blog: A Simple Way to Help Formerly Incarcerated Americans Reenter Society

Roman Darker, PPI Summer 2019 Intern

We often take for granted the many essential tasks that require government-issued ID, such as a drivers’ license or a state-issued ID card. We need them to open a bank account, apply for a job, rent property, stay in hotels, get a P.O. box, and even for most interstate bus travel.  

People leaving prison often lack ID for various reasons: IDs expire, deteriorate, or are simply lost. Unfortunately for many people formerly incarcerated in the U.S., the need for new government ID is acute, while the process of obtaining it is commonly drawn out. Not having a government ID means not having the ability to get money necessary for food and shelter, nor the requisite documentation for the ladder. Even today, amid promising criminal justice reform, hurdles to getting a new state ID for formerly incarcerated people are extensive.

Most Americans have had government-issued ID, in the form of a drivers’ license, since the age of 16, so we don’t easily recall the process and documents necessary for obtaining our first ID. Depending on the state, applicants must supply one form of primary documentation and/or two secondary forms. Primary forms of documentation are government-issued documents or receipts that indicate a person’s full legal name and date of birth, such as a birth certificate. Secondary forms include both a name and evidence of residency, such as a utility bill or school records.

Prisoners incarcerated in a state other than the one that issued their previous ID will first have to locate their birth certificates, a time consuming process even in the best of circumstances. If born in the state of their release, obtaining a birth certificate can take around two weeks after the responsible agency receives the application, with some variance in the timeline depending on the state (1). However, if the formerly incarcerated person was serving a sentence in a state other than the one in which they were born, then this process can take up to eight weeks (2). 

Of course, this scenario assumes that the individual has a place to receive mail (which is difficult to secure without government identification) and knows the county in which they were born, the hospital they were born in, and their mother’s full maiden name (3). Also, formerly incarcerated people often do not have the luxury of being able to wait eight weeks to find employment. Many need money quickly for food and shelter; moreover, evidence shows recidivism becomes much less likely with stable employment (4).

Fortunately, some states are moving to help people released from prison get IDs. For example, Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, and Wyoming have passed laws or forged interagency agreements aimed at providing inmates with state ID prior to or upon release (5).

Other states have turned to a simpler, cheaper (albeit less effective) option: allowing prisoners to exchange release documents and/or prison identification for state ID (6). One such state, Ohio, began providing “offender release cards” that contain all the information required by the federal Real ID Act, which lays out the minimum information necessary (7).

The former prisoner can then take that card to any Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles and obtain a state ID. The introduction of the offender release cards was one of several reforms that correlated with a drop in the state’s three-year recidivism rate to 27.5 percent back in 2015, which was over 20 percentage points below the national average (8) 

Both federal and state agencies operating prisons should have gathered all of the information provided on the cards through the process of verifying the inmate’s identity. Giving it to prisoners upon release would be a radically pragmatic addition to standard release procedure, and allowing it to suffice for obtaining a state ID is in every state’s interest.

Let’s stop punishing prisoners after they’ve paid their debt to society. Helping newly released prisoners get an I.D. can give them a fresh start and reduce the cost of recidivism in the bargain.


  1. Stephen Lilly, “How Long Does it Take to Receive a Birth Certificate?” PocketSense, November 6, 2018,
  2. Ibid.
  3. City of Columbus, Columbus Public Health Department, “Birth Certificate Walk-in or Mail Application,” Accessed July 29, 2019, file:///Users/romandarker/Downloads/BirthCert_Application.pdf. 
  4. G. Mesters, V. van der Geest, and C. Bijleveld, “Crime, Employment, and Social Welfare: An Individual-Level Study on Disadvantaged Males,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 32, no. 2 (2016), 159-90. doi:10.1007/s10940-015-9258-5.
  5. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, “The Elusiveness of an Official ID After Prison: A bureaucratic maze within the federal government leaves scores of former inmates without the key to a fresh start,” The Atlantic, August 11, 2016.
  6. Ibid.
  7. U.S. Congress, House, Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief, 2005 (Enrolled as Agreed to or Passed by Both House and Senate): Title II–Improved Security for Drivers’ Licenses and Personal Identification Cards, H.R. 1268, 109th Cong., 1st sess., Introduced in House January 26, 2005,
  8. Brian Bull, “As Recidivism Rates Drop In Ohio, Officials Work To Keep Ex-Felons From ‘Revolving Door’ Of Prisons,” ideastream, September 24, 2015,


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