New Bill Would Improve Access to Crucial Documents for the Formerly Incarcerated

A bicameral bill introduced by Senator Cory Booker, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Representative Elijah E. Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, would help formerly incarcerated people obtain federal documentation once they are released from prison.

More than 600,000 people are released from prison annually, and many face obstacles reintegrating into society. The New Pathways Act will provide specific guidelines for the Bureau of Prisons to help incarcerated people obtain important federal documents upon release, including a driver’s license, Social Security card, birth certificate, and work authorization forms.

"One of those obstacles may seem insignificant — nothing more than a flimsy piece of plastic — but it is priceless currency in a world that revolves around having some form of a government-issued ID,” Booker (D-N.J.) said in a statement. “It's necessary to vote, open a bank account, rent an apartment, and obtain a credit card, among many other things. Our bill is a small but important step in helping ease the pathway to reentry for formerly incarcerated individuals." The New Pathways Act is part of a criminal justice package Booker released earlier this year for the First Step Act. That law, which was first introduced by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), would ensure that formerly incarcerated people can access employment and other incentives that would help them succeed outside of prison, according to Cummings said he is “proud” to introduce the bill alongside Booker to help formerly incarcerated people “re-join their communities.”

"Upon release from federal prison, formerly incarcerated individuals face many obstacles from being able to successfully re-join their communities. One of such obstacles [sic] is their lack of a photo ID and other important identification documents," Congressman Cummings said. "[This bill] will ensure that the Bureau of Prisons obtains identification documents to assist reentering individuals in their pursuits to re-join their communities." Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives for The Sentencing Project, told The North Star that having federal documents upon release is imperative to the transition back into society. The Sentencing Project supports the bill, Gotsch noted.

“People coming out of incarceration are reconnecting to communities and people take for granted how important an ID is,” Gotsch said. “You have to have an ID and it can take weeks and weeks to get one.”

Other members of Congress are considering reforms to the way incarcerated people access information. Earlier this month, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said that more states should contemplate allowing incarcerated people to vote; Vermont and Maine are the only states that allow incarcerated people to vote while they are serving time.

“In my state, what we do is separate. You’re paying a price, you committed a crime, you’re in jail. That’s bad,” Sanders said on Saturday, according to the Des Moines Register. “But you’re still living in American society and you have a right to vote. I believe in that, yes, I do.”

Incarcerated people in 14 states and the District of Columbia lose their right to vote while they are serving time in prison, but have their rights restored once they complete their sentences, according to the National Conference of States Legislatures (NCSL). In 22 states, incarcerated people lose their voting rights while serving time, on probation, or parole, the NCSL stated.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.