Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center

Inmates take part in reciting the three daily affirmations, "Attitude," "Credo" and "The Choice is Mine" at the Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center  in this file photo.

Every year they pass hundreds of bills into law under the Gold Dome in Denver, and every year they pass a few that you can’t believe weren’t already in the law.

Credit state Sen. James Coleman who ushered Senate Bill 153 into law this month to help people leaving prison get the state-issued identification cards and other documents they need to get back on their feet.

He had some high-powered help, no doubt: Sen. John Cooke, a Republican, is the former Weld County sheriff. Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat from Vail, might have a future in Congress. They were backed up by Reps. David Ortiz and Kerry Tipper.

If we're going to close the revolving door on recidivism, restoring a name is a good place to start.

If they leave prison after a decade, chances are any valid ID they had before has expired, but that 2- by 3-inch piece of plastic is the difference in getting a place to live, a job, a bank account, medical care and government benefits, to name a few.

They’re starting out with nothing and the only other thing they may know is getting by on their wits, which often leads to trouble and a ticket back to jail. Society expects a lot without offering stability out the prison door.

Between 55% and 60% of inmates released on parole return within three years.

In 2018, the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative analyzed representative data on the roughly 5 million formerly incarcerated Americans. The unemployment rate was more than 10 times that of the rest of society, more than 27%. The unemployment for Black men who have served time is 35.3% and for Black women it’s 43.6%.

Some time back, Colorado's departments of revenue and corrections got together to make it easier for inmates to line up identification as their hitch is winding down. Local driver’s license offices set up shops in two DOC locations and a mobile unit visits other lockups.

Since the program got going in 2013, the ratio of inmates leaving prison with ID has risen from 23% to almost 80%, said Andrea Stojsavljevic, the policy manager for Healthier Colorado, which endorses the program as a community good.

“Clearly this program has been a proven success,” she said. “It’s an effective and smart way to save costs and resources down the road.”

The program is voluntary, though, and Coleman wanted to preserve it and give it the gloss it deserves, because of the good it does. And it doesn’t cost anything more.

“By placing this program in statute, we applaud the work our agencies have already done and we recognize the importance of assuring that someone has proper identification exiting the Department of Corrections in order to lower the recidivism rate, and this legislation preserves that program into the future,” Coleman said, mixing praise, compassion and fiscal responsibility.

The issue is consequential. Hundreds of prisoners are released every day from Colorado's 24 state and private prisons. Colorado typically houses 20,000 inmates, and about 9,800 on parole.

Experts in criminal justice say that what happens in the first 72 hours after an inmate is released determines how likely and how fast they might make a U-turn back into incarceration.

And who pays if they do? You and I, my tax-paying friends. The cost ranges from $19,000 to $83,000 per inmate per year. It costs about $31,000 a year to attend the University of Colorado.

What do inmates get now? Gate money.

At $100 in walking money, Colorado is one of the more generous states, too. 

Restoring an identity isn’t easy, cheap or quick, especially for people who might not have a ride to the DMV or the money they need when they get there. A new driver’s license cost $30.87, plus fees, including a $95 reinstatement fee and $9 to check a driving record.  The written test costs $11.15 and the driving test is $15.

This isn't a new cause for statehouse Democrats.

Last year, Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder passed a law restoring parolees' right to vote in state elections, which at the time was 11,467 people, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

This year, Sen. Pete Lee of Colorado Springs and Rep. Jennifer Bacon of Denver are driving a bill to help inmates to find education and job opportunities once they're out.

"Our addiction to incarceration in Colorado has not kept us safer and has had disastrous consequences," said Lee, a stalwart reformer and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

After her ID bill passed the House, Tipper said it isn't realistic to stack the deck against parolees without basic support and against people who are expected to seamlessly reintegrate into their communities.

“Simply by helping people leaving prisons obtain identification documents, we’re taking an important step toward lowering recidivism and building stronger communities,” she said.

With their debt to society paid off, how fast they can become a contributing member of society, the first stop on the road to redemption, depends on having valid government-issued photo identification, to which they are entitled.

The problem is working with a system that’s been working on them.

Garbage in, garbage out, that’s not a cycle any of us want for ourselves, no matter our mistakes, and it shouldn’t be a life sentence after time served.

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