Lacking proper identification like a driver’s license can be a barrier as newly released prisoners look for a job and a place to live. A bill by state Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, would issue free identification cards to prisoners upon release.
OLYMPIA — Sometimes small barriers present the biggest challenges to re-entering society for recently released inmates of Washington prisons.
Matthew Deen, who served time at Monroe Correctional Complex for drug and domestic-violence offenses, said not having proper identification was one of those hurdles. Identification is required for getting housing and a job, cashing a check, access to a library card and a host of other everyday tasks.
Deen’s driver’s license expired in prison, and a new license or renewal runs $45 to $54, plus the time and cost of transportation to a Department of Licensing (DOL) office. Most prisoners without money are released with $40.
But a new bill in the Legislature would issue inmates free, temporary state identification cards as they leave prison. The bill, Senate Bill 5173, is sponsored by state Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, and would expand a 2014 pilot program Habib put together at the Monroe complex. An amended companion bill is in the House Rules Committee, and a floor vote is likely in the House next week.
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Deen, 25, hadn’t heard of the pilot until he got his picture taken for an ID, and said he was excited that he wouldn’t have to shell out the cash and take time in his first week out of prison to get a new card.
“It was a lot easier, definitely,” he said.
“A lot of guys, they don’t want to spend half their release money to go and get an ID.”
Habib tried to pass the pilot program as a bill last year, and despite its unanimous support in a House vote, its funding source was questioned in a Senate committee. Habib changed the revenue source and successfully added it to the 2014 supplemental budget.
Dan Pacholke from the Department of Corrections (DOC) said since September 2014 when the program started, Monroe has issued cards to 264 offenders — 83 percent of those eligible, according to DOC.
Habib’s new bill would make the program permanent and statewide, rather than a year-to-year budget provision. Companion House Bill 1320 has cleared two committees with an amendment to charge offenders $9 for the card. Habib’s Senate bill is in the Senate Committee on Law and Justice, where committee Chairman Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, won’t hear it. Padden said he may consider hearing the House bill if it passes the House.
“I think somebody ought to be able to hopefully make $14 or something without the government having to come in and provide that for them,” he said. Padden said he believes charitable organizations should be responsible for programs like Habib’s. “I’m just not sure we need to pass a new bill.”
A statewide program would cost about $500,000 every two years, according to the Office of Financial Management’s assessment of the amended bill. Pacholke said about 8,000 inmates are released from Washington every year.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg first brought Habib the idea to issue free identification. At state prisons other than Monroe, inmates get DOC cards that rarely work as valid identification. Besides their impracticality, Satterberg said a DOC card unnecessarily marks those who were formerly incarcerated.
“It seems like the message the state is giving to people on the way out of prison was that ‘we expect you’re going to come right back,’ ” Satterberg said. “Not ‘welcome back to society.’ ”
Pacholke added: “Nobody wants this prison ID card. It’s not valid, but it is embarrassing.”
Habib said giving inmates “identicards,” as the DOL calls them, would aid former inmates’ interactions with police. The state having access to a high-quality photo of former inmates is important to have on record, Habib said, and inmates can avoid profiling by having identification that doesn’t cast them as simply an offender.
“When you think about recidivism as a problem, most good solutions are expensive,” he said. “They’re a great bargain in the long run and definitely you need to do them, but given a tight budget situation we’ve been facing the last few years, it’s often difficult to make those big investments when we see the results down the line.”
The program doesn’t cost a lot, Habib added, “and I think it’s something that has a significant capacity to help people get re-entered into society.”
Florida and California are among the places that have instituted similar versions of the program.
Receiving an identicard was a welcome surprise for Deen. He balked when asked if paying full price for identification cards is a trivial expense for recently released inmates.
“A lot of people don’t have that,” he said.