Providing IDs to returning citizens in Pennsylvania would facilitate successful reintegration
Photo 47683589 © Jon Bilous |


Providing IDs to returning citizens in Pennsylvania would facilitate successful reintegration

H.B. 1601 would require the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to establish a program to assist citizens in obtaining state-issued photo IDs before release.

More than 10,000 people are released from Pennsylvania prisons each year. These individuals often struggle to reintegrate into society, and nearly half are rearrested within three years. Gainful employment and stable housing are key to effective reintegration and not returning to crime. However, many prisoners are released without government-issued identification documents required for necessities like finding a job or renting an apartment.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering legislation that would require the state’s Department of Corrections to assist prisoners in obtaining state-issued photo identification (IDs), Social Security cards, and birth certificates upon release from prison. The legislation, House Bill 1601, passed in the state House back in March and is currently awaiting a hearing from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

H.B. 1601 would require the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to establish an “identification upon reentry program” to assist returning citizens in obtaining state-issued photo IDs before release. Through the program, DOC staff would assist prisoners with printing forms, ensuring information was filled out correctly, and communicating with other government agencies. Prisoners may also receive assistance in obtaining a Social Security card and birth certificate to obtain a photo ID or driver’s license.

Inmates would not be responsible for any fees or costs associated with obtaining these documents through the proposed program. For example, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation typically charges about $40 to issue or renew a driver’s license or photo ID. The Pennsylvania Department of Health charges between $20 and $30 to issue a birth certificate, and the federal Social Security Administration does not charge any fees for replacing a Social Security card. So, in the absence of H.B. 1601, a prisoner requiring all three documents may be required to pay about $60 or $70 plus any other extraneous fees and costs.

H.B. 1601 passed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by a party-line 102-99 vote on March 27, with Republicans opposing the bill. The narrow passage of the bill is unusual given that similar legislation has received unanimous or near-unanimous support in several states, including Tennessee, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Illinois, Georgia, Arizona, Alaska, and Alabama in recent years. At least 17 states have enacted legislation that helps provide citizens being released from incarceration with permanent state-issued photo identification cards.

In a floor discussion of the bill, Rep. Stephenie Scialabba (R-Butler) raised concerns that the legislation could lead to voter fraud, saying, “It does not state anywhere in this bill that you must be a United States citizen to receive a Social Security card or a photo identification, which you will then take on the taxpayers’ dime to the DMV and encounter automatic voter registration.” Scialabba also raised concerns about repeat offenders benefitting from taxpayer dollars and that the bill does not require program participants to remain in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania following their release from prison.

These concerns with the legislation are not well-founded. As a recent editorial from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explained:

Under U.S. law, any immigrant convicted of crimes “of moral turpitude” (a broad definition including fraud, larceny, and anything causing harm to people) will likely face deportation. According to DOJ figures from 2019, roughly 75% of federally incarcerated aliens, both lawful and unlawful, were already in some sort of removal proceedings. The rest were still in the process of determining immigration status or of adjudication.

So, in the scenario that Ms. Scialabba fears, an undocumented immigrant — a group that makes up only 1.2% of Pennsylvania’s population — would have to be arrested, become part of the 25% of incarcerated immigrants not immediately slated for removal, get enrolled in this program and released before immigration authorities catch on, receive an ID, go to the Drivers License Center, register to vote, fill out paperwork that clearly outlines a citizenship requirement, eventually receive a ballot, and then commit voter fraud.

Nevertheless, Scialabba’s concerns could be addressed by narrowing the legislation’s definition of an “eligible offender” to United States citizens who intend to reside in Pennsylvania post-release. Other states with programs like the one proposed by H.B. 1601 have limited eligibility in similar ways. For example, Oklahoma’s Sarah Stitt Act requires the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to provide IDs to individuals who indicate that they intend to reside in Oklahoma after their release. Georgia’s H.B. 218 (2023) applies only to Georgia residents.

Regarding concerns about repeat offenders and taxpayer costs, the program’s goal is to reduce reincarceration by facilitating successful reentry. The costs of incarceration are considerable, so programs aimed at reducing reincarceration have the potential to save precious taxpayer dollars. While the implementation of H.B. 1601 would involve waiving the $40 and $20-$30 fees that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania Department of Health charge, the fiscal impact of the bill would likely be minimal (there is no fiscal analysis available for the bill). If all 12,466 people released from Pennsylvania prisons in 2022 paid $70 to receive a photo ID and birth certificate, those fees would add up to $872,620. In comparison, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections requested $3.3 billion in funding this year. That’s more than $82,000 per prisoner in the state.

Pennsylvania should follow the lead of other states by assisting people with obtaining photo IDs upon their release from prison. This is a common-sense approach for addressing the practical obstacles individuals face while trying to rebuild their lives after repaying their debt to society.