When most people think of a prosecutor, they think of a person who sends people to prison. And sure, in the process of enforcing the law and doing justice, prosecutors do plenty of that. But when I was a U.S. Attorney, I also spent a lot of time thinking about what happens to people after they go to prison – and maybe most importantly, what happens to people when they get out.
Every year, across the country, about 600,000 people who have served their time and paid their debt are released from state and local prisons. That’s more than the population of Wyoming. And yet, under current laws, regulations, and circumstances, many of these men and women – people determined to start over and become productive members of society – will find that the challenges and burdens of being an ex-con can put a fresh start out of reach. They might find that they’re ineligible for student loans and unable to take advantage of opportunities for education and training. They might be denied housing because of their criminal records. They might find that their state has taken away their right to vote.
And sometimes, the barrier to a new life can be as simple as not having a government ID.
These days, state- or federally-issued identification is necessary for everything from applying for a job to driving a car to securing housing to receiving public benefits. It’s something most Americans take for granted. But when incarcerated individuals are released from prison, most don’t receive anything beyond a discharge slip or a Department of Corrections inmate card – neither of which can be used as a government ID. To get a government ID, they often need a social security card or a birth certificate – and if they’ve been in prison for a while, they probably have no idea where theirs is. Getting replacements can take months, during which they can’t get a job, can’t drive a car, can’t get public benefits, and have to live on whatever money they received when they left prison – if they’re able to cash a check at all. Under those circumstances, it’s easy for even the most determined and well-intentioned person to feel their second chance slipping away.
So why hasn’t this been fixed already? After all, every state and federal prison already verifies an inmate’s identity. We spend tens of thousands of dollars every year to incarcerate each person in prison. Why not spend an extra $12 to give each person a government ID so that they can have access to the basic things a person needs to survive on the outside?
Well, it’s complicated. Creating separate government IDs for former prisoners doesn’t do much about the stigma of being a former offender. Issuing state IDs requires the cooperation of the states, and some are reluctant to make the necessary changes to their laws. Some states have expressed concern about identity theft or compliance with federal legislation like the Real ID Act, which established national guidelines for identification. And some former inmates – like people who crossed the border while trafficking drugs – are ineligible for a passport. Between the amount of cooperation necessary for a program like this one – among both state and federal agencies – and the reluctance of some policymakers to make returning individuals a priority, a relatively simple-sounding proposition with a big potential impact goes unaddressed.
What kind of country do we want to be?
This is just one small example of the kind of issue that prevents people leaving prison from being able to re-engage with society and renew their lives. Without sustained attention and a lot of effort, formerly incarcerated individuals will keep falling through the cracks. That’s bad for our citizens, bad for our communities, and bad for our country as a whole.
This is the kind of issue I used to think a lot about when I was a U.S. Attorney. And so, when I lost my job, one of the first things I did was to get involved with an organization called Defy Ventures, a unique nonprofit tackling issues like mass incarceration and recidivism through entrepreneurship. It’s one of the most exciting and inspiring organizations I’ve ever worked with, because it does incredible, innovative work that is focused on people who are usually among the last to get the help and assistance they need and deserve.
Ultimately, that work speaks to one of the central questions of our time: what kind of country do we want to be? To me, the answer is pretty clear. I think we should be the kind of country where the rich care about the poor, the healthy care about the sick, and the prosecutors care about the prisoners. At the end of the day, America is a community – and it ought to matter to us what happens to people living at the margins.
This week, I spoke with Defy Ventures’ founder and CEO, Catherine Hoke – an extraordinary person who has dedicated her career and her life to that very idea. We talked about which prisoners make the best entrepreneurs, where you can go to get a good prison workout, and what it’s like to lose everything – and get a second chance at life.
Take a listen, subscribe, and stay tuned for more.