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Located in Canon City, the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, shown here in a Dec. 9, 2020, photo, is the state’s oldest prison. Built in 1871, it preceded the state’s admission to the Union by five years. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It can be the key to accessing social services and education opportunities, getting a job or finding a place to live. But as recently as 2015, fewer than half of the adults leaving Colorado’s prison system had a state-issued photo identification card or driver’s license when they were released.

“An ID seems mundane, but it has a huge impact on accessing things people take for granted — applying for a job, having steady income, finding a home, opening up a bank account,” said Kyle Piccola, spokesman for the nonprofit advocacy group Healthier Colorado. 

Now a bipartisan group of lawmakers is looking to pass Senate Bill 153, which would codify and expand an existing program to ensure that every offender exiting the state’s prison system gets help obtaining an ID. 

“It’s the smallest things, can make the biggest impact,” said state Sen. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat who is a prime sponsor of the legislation. “That piece of plastic is elusive or impossible for formerly incarcerated folks to secure.” 

Coleman is working on the measure with state Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican and a former Weld County sheriff.

After serving a prison sentence, many people may no longer have in their possession an ID, birth certificate or other identifying documents required to access basic services and rebuild their life after incarceration. 

Senate Bill 153 would require that the Colorado Department of Corrections review every inmate before release and make sure they receive assistance obtaining an ID. 

“It’s just the most critical period for preventing recidivism, immediately after release,” said Coleman. “The biggest issue is [people are] just not being aware of the process or how to navigate it.”

Finding stability in the first few years after release is also key to avoiding reincarceration. Many Coloradans in the corrections system do not have a high school degree and may struggle with substance abuse, mental health and lack a support system. Coupled with the stigma against hiring people with a prison record, difficulty finding a job can make people more likely to re-engage with criminal behavior.

“We know that if somebody can receive stable income and have secure housing … the likelihood that they will have better health outcomes are a lot higher,” said Piccola of Healthier Colorado, which helped develop the bill. 

The Colorado Department of Corrections has assisted offenders with identification issues for a number of years, but it wasn’t until the state passed legislation in 2010 that those programs were formalized, said spokeswoman Annie Skinner.

The state followed up in 2014 with funding for a partnership with the Colorado Department of Revenue to create two on-site drivers’ licenses offices, which launched later that year.

“We’ve seen enormous improvements in ID issuance for incarcerated individuals re-entering the community in the last decade,” said Skinner. “Our department policies, and this bill language, serve as a strong foundation for us to continue and improve upon our work.”

The partnership helps offenders overcome the practical and bureaucratic barriers to getting identification. That might mean helping an individual apply for a new ID; replacing social security cards, birth certificates and other documents needed to get one in the first place; providing transportation to an appointment or a waiver for the costs associated with an ID application.

The program has been effective. In 2013, 1,577 people left prison with an ID, or 22.6%. By 2019, the number of offenders leaving the system with identification increased to 5,525, or 78.5%, according to a 2019 report on the system’s reentry initiatives. 

Skinner said that rate has since gone up to 82%, although it has fallen to 75% during the coronavirus pandemic because of “operational practices implemented to reduce transmission of the virus in our correctional setting.”

“It’s an evidence-based success,” said Piccola. “When the focus is on getting people the resources needed, it works.” 

The new legislation would make the program mandatory, which Piccola said would protect it from being done away with under a future governor’s administration.

Inmates can currently decline the assistance, and the bill doesn’t change that. In 2019, 827 offenders were released without an ID, 158 who didn’t want the assistance and another 54 who waived their right to it. The department was unable to get IDs for 615 people, according to the 2019 report.

The bill would also require the DOC to publish annual statistics on how many offenders don’t have ID and how many were able to get one as a result of the program. 

A legislative financial analysis of the bill is not yet available, so it’s not known how much more it would cost to expand the program, which is based on an existing administrative regulation. 

“The good news is this program is already in place,” Coleman said. 

The bill is scheduled for its first hearing on March 16 in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs committee. 

Thy Vo

Thy Vo is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Sun staff member. Twitter: @thyanhvo