A flat piece of plastic can mean so much to a former inmate. It can mean stable housing, a better job, access to social services, educational opportunities, and more. But this singular piece of plastic proves elusive—impossible, really—for scores of citizens across the United States. An official government-issued identification card, equal in value to and as universally accepted as a driver’s license or passport, can be the key to a post-incarceration life filled with possibilities instead of roadblocks.
About 600,000 people return home from federal and state prisons each year. The federal government alone releases some 41,000 inmates annually. But it and many states do not provide returning citizens with this invaluable instrument.
For its part, the federal government does acknowledge the need for an official ID. Earlier this year, Attorney General Loretta Lynch asked all state governors to provide state-issued IDs for newly released federal inmates. This is a significant but only symbolic step: The Department of Justice cannot legally compel states to do anything in this regard. It can only ask politely and say please. “I am asking each state to work with us to allow citizens returning from federal prisons to exchange their federal BOP [Bureau of Prisons] inmate ID card—and their authenticated release documentation—for a state-issued ID,” she said at a reentry event in Philadelphia in April. “This basic step would have a powerful impact. As a practical matter, it would standardize the current patchwork of state policies around providing returning citizens with identification, and it would eliminate one of the most common—and most harmful—barriers to reentry across the United States.”