Secretary of State helps launch first-of-its-kind state ID program for inmates exiting Cook County Jail

Secretary of State helps launch first-of-its-kind state ID program for inmates exiting Cook County Jail

By HANNAH MEISEL
& BETH HUNDSDORFER
Capitol News Illinois
news@capitolnewsillinois.com

CHICAGO – Certain detainees leaving Cook County jail will now be given a state ID card upon release in a new pilot program announced Monday by Sheriff Tom Dart and Illinois Secretary of State Alexi  Giannoulias.

Inmates released from Illinois prisons have been receiving state IDs at no charge since late 2020 when state leaders launched a pilot program, which was subsequently expanded statewide and codified into state law earlier this year. But doing the same with detainees in county jails has proved much more difficult. Prison inmates have more stable and predictable release dates, but jail detainees may stay for as long as years while awaiting trial, or as short as just a few hours.

Regardless of how long a detainee stays in jail, however, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said a state ID has consistently been at the “top of the list” of needs that inmates reported to jail officials upon intake “because it unlocks everything else.”

“I cannot tell you the number of times when we’ve talked to an employer ready to hire this person — a well-paying job that will clearly steer them in a different direction,” Dart said at a Monday morning news conference. “And (they) say, ‘You know, Tom, everything’s great. This is good to go. Can you get us the ID?’ And then there’s the long pause. There is no (ID). We don’t have it.”

Beyond getting a job, Dart said not having proper identification can also prevent formerly incarcerated people from getting housing, transportation or social services – the lack of which can significantly increase the likelihood of a detainee reoffending. 

“Equipping them with valid identification will help these individuals with basic tasks, like locating housing, securing a job, opening a bank account, and enrolling and assistance programs and obtaining reliable transportation,” Giannoulias said Monday. “Fulfilling these basic needs reduces recidivism, saves taxpayer money and makes all our communities stronger.”

Giannoulias acknowledged the paperwork – including birth certificates and social security cards – necessary to get a state ID are already difficult and costly to obtain if they’ve been lost, and said “entrenched disparities” have historically made the task more difficult for people of color even without the added challenge of incarceration.

Sodiqa Williams, senior vice president of reentry services at the Chicago-based Safer Foundation, said formerly incarcerated people can “lose hope” when running into repeated hurdles after release from jail or prison.

“Every day matters when a person is released,” she said. “Whether it’s taking care of their kids, having their housing, losing their job, it is very important. Time is of the essence.”

Although other states beyond Illinois have launched similar programs for inmates leaving prisons and lawmakers have tried to create a similar program for jails statewide, the Cook County jail ID pilot program is the first of its kind in the nation, Dart said. While not all detainees lack a state ID or license at the time of their arrest, it may have expired while they’ve been in jail or been held for evidence, he said.

The Cook County jail pilot program began Monday with inmates in the county’s electronic monitoring program, as Dart said the jail has “better data” on that population, as well as the support from probation officers who are charged with keeping track of former detainees upon release.

Dart said he’s been pushing for access to state IDs for detainees upon release for 15 years. Asked Monday why the request hasn’t gone anywhere before this year, Giannoulias – who was elected to the office last year after former Secretary of State Jesse White’s 24-year tenure – demurred.

“Let’s just say it was not the sheriff’s office or the sheriff,” he said. “So I’m not here to point fingers in the past. We’re here today. The sheriff reached out to us early on in the administration and we found ways to work together and to make sure that this pilot program runs as smoothly as possible.”

In two Metro East counties, sheriff’s department officials said while their populations were smaller, detainees released from their facilities face some of the same barriers. 

In Madison County, Sheriff Jeff Connor said detainees without identification is not a widespread issue there, but he welcomed any effort to eliminate barriers to former detainees’ access to jobs and services.

“I don’t see a downside to it,” Connor said.

In St. Clair County, detainees who enter county jail with cash receive a check for that amount when they are discharged, said Sgt. James Hendricks, a spokesperson for the department, but banks can refuse to cash those checks without proper identification. In response, the sheriff’s department started issuing debit cards for one-time use. The fee for that service is covered by commissary profits.

Hendricks said the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department would welcome efforts to expand the ID program downstate. 

Scott Burnham, a spokesperson for Giannoulias, pointed to the existing program in state prisons as an example of how the new jail initiative might expand. 

“So far this year, we have issued around 900 state IDs,” Burnham said.

A few months ago, the agency started a program with state-run juvenile facilities to obtain identification for the youth who are released. 

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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