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Blog Post

A New Alabama Law Brings Opportunities, Challenges for Reentering Citizens

Friday, November 5, 2021

For the nearly 600,000 Americans who return to their communities from incarceration each year, reestablishing financial stability and access to safe financial products is key to improving financial health. For many returning citizens, lack of ID can limit employment and housing opportunities. There are several reasons returning citizens may leave incarceration without ID:

  • They may never have had a driver’s license, a Social Security number, or a copy of their birth certificate.
  • They may have lost these pieces of documentation. 
  • Their ID may have expired during incarceration.
  • Their ID may have been suspended due to nonpayment of fines and fees. 

The Financial Health Network’s survey research examining the financial health impact of criminal justice system involvement found that 13% of respondents had their driver’s license suspended at some point due to failure to pay fines, fees, or other debt.

A recent law enacted in Alabama suggests a potential path for states across the country that are considering ways to smooth the reentry journey for justice-involved individuals. The new law includes a provision that requires the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) to work with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) to issue a nondriver state ID to all individuals leaving prison. ADOC must also provide these individuals with supporting documentation, including a Social Security card and a birth certificate, if the individual consents. Ohio, Florida, California, Arizona, and Minnesota already have programs to help eligible inmates secure state-issued IDs.

Proper identification is required for individuals to set up bank accounts, where they can safely – and often cost-effectively – store funds and make payments. Identification also can be critical to obtaining a driver’s license, renting an apartment (depending on landlord requirements), or gaining employment. 

The documentation provisions of the new Alabama law raise questions that require exploration: 

  • What are the most efficient ways to provide IDs and documentation to individuals prerelease? 
  • What effects will improved documentation have on returning citizens’ ability to quickly access housing and employment? 
  • How can reentry support organizations and government agencies improve and streamline processes to equip returning citizens with IDs and other necessary tools? 
  • Beyond ID access, what other policy changes may help jump-start returning individuals on their financial health journey? 

Oregon’s policies may provide some insight: The Oregon Department of Corrections helps inmates apply for replacement Social Security cards and birth certificates, and it pays the state’s fees for birth certificates. In the third quarter of 2020, 75% of eligible Oregon adults in custody were released with a replacement Social Security card, and 83% were released with a certified birth certificate.

The Financial Solutions Lab Collaborative, which explores the role of financial health policy innovation to complement private and nonprofit solutions, has convened several stakeholders who are studying ID access and other key reentry tools within and outside of Alabama. With support from our advisor, Alabama Appleseed, the program will generate scalable learnings for other states to adopt. 

Though the Financial Solutions Lab recognizes that implementing mandates and processes takes time and effort, we are encouraged by the momentum the new Alabama law has created and its alignment with the Collaborative’s focus. 

Together with a network of stakeholders on the ground and our advisor, Alabama Appleseed, we look forward to leveraging opportunities to improve financial health for returning citizens through this new law, alongside other critical reentry supports. Examples of reentry support from our partners include the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s reentry guide for those working with justice-involved individuals and the Credit Builders Alliance’s toolkit for helping returning citizens build credit. Stay up to date on the Collaborative’s work in this space by visiting our website and subscribing for updates.

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