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Race & Social Justice

New Bill Helps Recently Released Prisoners Get IDs

In this photo Feb. 26, 2013 file photo, inmates walk through the exercise yard at California State Prison Sacramento, near Folsom, Calif.
Associated Press
In this photo Feb. 26, 2013 file photo, inmates walk through the exercise yard at California State Prison Sacramento, near Folsom, Calif.

Troy Shaffer was released earlier this month after being in prison for 17 years for a series of burglary and car theft charges. Because he didn’t have a photo on file, he was released with only his prison ID.

That created a huge barrier for him as he tried to start his life and reintegrate into society. Without proper identification, formerly incarcerated people can’t open bank accounts, apply for Medi-Cal, jobs, or even housing.

New Bill Helps Recently Released Prisoners Get IDs
Listen to this story by Cristina Kim.

“We need our ID so we can get started,” Shaffer said. “It’s not happening fast enough.”

A new California law aims to speed up the process. SB 629 would make sure that people released from prison have access to a DMV-issued California ID, social security card, or birth certificate.

RELATED: Leaving prison without a government ID can block access to housing, jobs and help

There's currently a California Identification Card Program that serves all 35 of the state’s adult prisons. But this law would strengthen that program by allowing inmates to get an ID without a recent photo on file, disregard outstanding fees and also expand eligibility to people that had not previously held California driver's licenses.

The bill passed both houses of the legislature and is on its way to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk, who has until Oct. 10 to veto it or sign it into law. It was co-sponsored by the San Diego’s District Attorney Office and San Diego County’s Reentry Roundtable.

None of this happened in time to help Shaffer. He was able to start the process of getting a California ID with help from Metro Community Ministries, but it will still be a few weeks until he has his identification and can begin to prepare for his life outside of prison.

RELATED: Crowded U.S. Jails Drove Millions Of COVID-19 Cases, A New Study Says

Robert Forte, a resource manager with Metro Community Ministries, spends hours each week helping former inmates like Shaffer get the identification documents they need. It’s time he wished he could spend getting them jobs and healthcare or even helping more people.

“It is vital that individuals being released from incarceration start off on the right foot,” Forte said. “Identification being provided from the start gives them a head start.”

The issue came to a breaking point for Forte during the pandemic when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation accelerated the release of prisoners.

He had almost 40 clients at one point and had several cases where people were locked out of services and opportunities because they couldn’t get their IDs.

“It took almost six months to get a client an ID because most of the agencies were closed and there was no contingency,” Forte said. “It actually did show all the cracks in the concrete and the lack of collaborations that are needed.”

And the need for an ID is especially important during a pandemic, Forte said.

“Without that ID and no medical benefits, how can they be screened for COVID-19 or screened for any other communicable disease?” Forte said. “And at the end of it all, this leads back to homelessness and that’s one of San Diego’s biggest problems.”

VIDEO: New Bill Helps Recently Released Prisoners Get IDs

Only a little over half of the prisoners released between January 2020 and February 2021 who were eligible for a California ID were approved for one, according to a report based on information from California’s Automated Reentry Management System. Nearly 2,000 were rejected because the photos on file were too old.

The new legislation will not just remove the photo issue, but also stipulates that the state's prison system facilitate the process for getting an ID, including providing assistance with any necessary forms or correspondence.

Forte is worried that the bill’s language isn’t strong enough because it does not require the state to provide eligible people with IDs. But he still thinks it’s a step in the right direction.

Corrected:
This story has been updated with the correct number for the bill.