Cortez Bowman told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee during a Tuesday bill hearing that when he was released from the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown he didn’t have a “real ID.” He said that the Department of Corrections issued him a small, red card with his picture and name.
That’s standard practice in Maryland. As the law currently stands, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has a partnership with the Motor Vehicle Administration that requires them to issue state IDs that meet the standards of a second-class ID to inmates who apply before their release. Ex-offenders then have 60 days post-release to get an MVA-issued ID for $2 by presenting their release ID, Social Security card, birth certificate, prison discharge documents and residency paperwork at a local MVA office — which is what Bowman told the committee he tried to do.
With his newfound freedom and his mind focused on doing “the right thing,” Bowman headed to the MVA, but, being recently released and homeless, said he encountered some obstacles.
“They hit me with bills,” he testified. “I’m thinking in my mind ‘How can I get this $25 and nobody’s gonna give it to me?’”
He said he ended up stealing the money, and wound up back in the penal system.
Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) is sponsoring a bill that would help people reentering society by ordering the state Motor Vehicle Administration to directly equip inmates in Maryland correctional facilities with MVA-administered identification cards and renewing eligible drivers licenses before their release, removing the short-lived correctional release cards altogether.
Ellis said he came up with the idea for the proposed legislation after a town hall forum that U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D) hosted in his district, where a number of former offenders brought the challenges they were facing without a proper state ID to his attention.
“We can say that the corrections ID is not as good or effective as an MVA ID,” said Ellis to the committee. “Folks look at it and say, ‘What is this?’ and they’re unable to get quite a few things done.” He cited instances where individuals may have challenges completing normal tasks like cashing checks, boarding airplanes or entering federal buildings.
Former inmate Robert Price agreed with Ellis’ notion that the current ID cards issued to new releases don’t provide adequate information, testifying that he was once held by police because they didn’t recognize his correctional release ID as valid.
“They said I need a Maryland state ID if I’m going to live in the county,” Price said before the committee, “and I spent 23 1/2 hours in jail until they could verify who I was.”
Price, who said he served a lengthy prison sentence, described a number of hoops he jumped through in order to get his MVA-issued ID after his release, like catching a bus in the early morning to get a new copy of his birth certificate and Social Security card.
“I’d had my driver’s license, but since I’d been incarcerated I had to start all over again.” He said that it would have been easy for him to fall back into criminal behavior because of the difficulty of the whole process.
The Maryland Department of Transportation submitted a letter of testimony taking no position on the bill, citing its current partnership with the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services in an effort to help inmates in the process of getting proper IDs. In the letter, the agency offered comments about the existing program and raised the issue that supplying IDs to inmates without submitting official pre-existing personal documentation, like birth certificates and Social Security cards, would clash with the policies put in place under the federal REAL ID Act.
Ellis’ bill also requests that state-issued driver’s licenses remain valid for the balance of time that an individual served in prison, which MDOT flagged for consideration by the committee because legally REAL ID licenses are only valid for eight years.
Lawmakers questioned Ellis and panel members that testified about where the need lies since a program to give out state IDs already exists. District Public Defender for Southern Maryland Michael Beach said that he interpreted the existing legislation to mean that IDs his clients receive are MVA compliant, “but that doesn’t mean it comes from the MVA.”
“These folks are saying they’re getting something that doesn’t look anything like what everybody else has who may not have a driver’s license but needs an identification card,” Beach said.
Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County) suggested that if committee members saw one of the ID’s themselves, they might have a better grasp of the issue. At that point, a man sitting in on the hearing stood and introduced himself, wielding a fairly plain plastic card in his hand with a face-forward headshot against a red backdrop bearing his name and a few other identifiers — not the flag-adorned ID that the MVA issues.
He said his card is only valid for 60 days.
Throughout the testimony, ex-offenders and advocates suggested that this form of ID has not been ideal for reentry, saying that not only is the process of obtaining MVA IDs arduous because accessing the correct documents can pose its own set of challenges but that the correctional release ID is limiting in its ability for its holders to achieve housing, meaningful job opportunities and access to assistance programs.
“We’re not asking for no handout or anything,” said Price, “but just the opportunity to get out there and earn a living.”