The Democratic governor of Virginia made headlines across the country last week when he announced that over 200,000 former prison inmates in his state would be granted voting rights, with reactions split over whether the move was a sincere effort to help reintegrate ex-convicts back into society, or a political ploy designed to get more liberal voters to the polls this election year.
Perhaps lost in the moment was this fact: For hundreds of thousands of former inmates around the country, there are more urgent needs than the right to vote.
Focused on this bigger picture, the Obama administration this week is making a much less controversial request of state governors – calling on them to make it easier for convicted felons to obtain state-issued identification once they get out of prison.
The proposal issued Monday by US Attorney General Loretta Lynch may seem like small potatoes. But according to some criminal-justice experts, such a seemingly small change could have major impacts on the lives of the hundreds of thousands of felons who leave prison every year. It’s also a goal that may span partisan divides, potentially serving as a bridge toward further criminal-justice reforms.
America’s high rate of incarceration has been growing as an issue of bipartisan concern – along with the goal of offering paths forward for ex-convicts when they reenter society. One example is a “ban the box” movement aimed at removing a criminal-record check box from employment applications.
And not having an ID can have damaging ripple effects, making it harder for ex-cons not only to find work but also to open a bank account, get a student loan, or even enroll their own child in school. The result can be a return to criminal activity.
"If they're restricted from job opportunities and housing, it makes it more likely they're going to return to criminal activity just to provide sustenance for themselves and their families," says Jeremy Haile, the federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization advocating for criminal justice reform.
On Saturday, heading into what the Justice Department calls “National Re-Entry Week," President Obama previewed a series of actions his administration will take to reform prisoner re-entry at the federal level, adding that 600,000 people are released from prisons across America every year.
But with 9 out of 10 US prisoners held in state facilities, it is state governments that have the most say over how smooth a former inmate's re-entry can be.
"The vast majority of those [600,000 people] are in state facilities, so it’s very important that the states act to remove barriers for those folks," says Mr. Haile.
And the administration seems to be recognizing this. Only state governments could issue felons official ID cards upon their release, but even that simple step could make their transition back into society significantly easier, experts say.
A report last year from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found a 77 percent recidivism rate among released prisoners over a five-year period. Making state ID’s quicker and easier to obtain could reduce those numbers by smoothing the pathway between prison and the basic elements of a new life, including a home and a job.
A criminal record can disqualify you from doing a lot of things, including working certain jobs and receiving certain benefits, but it doesn't disqualify you from getting some form of official state identification. Still, many former inmates struggle to get one, including because they can't pull together the documentation needed to apply for one (like a birth certificate or utility bills), or they can't afford the required fee.
Brenda Palms-Barber, who runs a small honey-making company in Chicago that employs recently released ex-cons, knows firsthand the scope of the issue.
"It certainly has been one of the most significant barriers that our graduates have," she says, adding that her employees often have to spend several months tracking down the documentation needed to apply for a state ID. "If they can get this jumpstarted, if they can get a state-issued ID, that’s a game-changer."
All this is not to say Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was off base in addressing the question of voting rights. It’s an issue that many states have been considering in recent years.
It just happens to be hotly politicized, opening the governor and his party to accusations that it was a partisan political ploy, since so many inmates are African-Americans and Latinos who tend to vote Democratic.
Given that, some experts urge that states focus on less-controversial steps.
“If you come in asking for sweeping reforms or demanding sweeping reforms, I think the end-game becomes a little more difficult," says Carrie Pettus-Davis, an assistant professor at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. The alternative path is to “ask for a little bit at a time," she says.
At the moment some reforms seem to have considerable bipartisan support. The official GOP platform states that while getting criminals off the street is essential, "more attention must be paid to the process of restoring those individuals to the community." Conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch in April joined many liberals for “ban the box" changes to job applications. And some federal criminal justice reforms have won bipartisan support.
States themselves, including deeply conservative ones, have already been taking steps to make re-entry easier for felons. In many states this has taken the form of repealing or creating exemptions from "civil disability" laws passed during the tough-on-crime era that restricted civic participation for drug offenders.
Federal welfare reforms passed in 1996 included lifetime bans for people with drug convictions from receiving food stamps and other welfare benefits, for example. But after Texas and Alabama crafted exceptions to those bans last year, now barely 10 percent of states still have those bans.
"These are states that aren't known for being soft on crime, that have seen that making it harder for people leaving prison doesn't promote public safety," says Haile.
There could still be challenges, experts say. Issuing state IDs to former prisoners sounds simple, but could be hamstrung by challenges of costs or logistics.
But if the ID barrier is broken down around the country, it is a simple, uncontroversial development that would be "groundbreaking," according to Ms. Palms-Barber.
"This opportunity to have a state-issued ID," she says. "Just helping restore a person's citizenship, that's how I see that."