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Criminal Justice

Lehigh County passes new law to ease transition for released prisoners with new I.D. program

The Lehigh County Jail. (Photo | File)

  • A new ordinance in Lehigh County solidifies an agreement with the state Transportation Department to get formerly incarcerated people official state IDs either right at release or soon after
  • Not having an official ID has been linked to a lot of difficulty for formerly incarcerated people in trying to find employment and needed services out of jail
  • The bill passed unanimously Wednesday

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A new ordinance passed by Lehigh County commissioners looks to remove a major barrier for formerly incarcerated people working their way back into society.
Commissioners on Wednesday voted unanimously to enter an agreement with PennDOT to provide county prisoners a valid state identification or pre-filled application for a state identification prior to release.

The agreement transfers governmental functions between the county and PennDOT. The county's home rule charter lets it work with PennDOT to establish the needs of incarcerated people and enable an application if they don't have a current record with PennDOT.

The county will submit an application for those with existing ID records for the issuing of a new card, and assist those without prior records to create a pre-filled application.

PennDOT issues driver's licenses or identification cards because of its role in the state's vehicle code. The department would invoice the county monthly for the IDs issued, waiving fees for the inmates.

Praise for addressing the challenge

Commissioner Dave Harrington, a sponsor of the bill, said when it was introduced that the bill represents creative problem-solving, and praised county administration's work to establish the agreement.

"I'm excited to see people getting back on their feet after what most people probably would consider some of the worst parts of their lives, and us being a part of rehabilitation rather than punishment," Harrington said.

When the bill was introduced in late October, Harrington pointed out the challenges that formerly incarcerated people can face without a new ID upon release.

"While prison IDs can sometimes step in, the stigma that surrounds it and the inability for it to do certain things that state IDs can is something that can hinder the process of someone reentering society," Harrington said.

"You need ID when you're going into certain government buildings; you need ID when you're applying to different insurance issues or bank accounts."

Commissioner Geoff Brace said, "I'm regretful that it took this long to get done. But when working through PennDOT, sometimes that's the case.

"Hopefully, we can get this off the ground quickly so that people can benefit from it."

Activists present at commissioners' two most recent meetings took time to praise of the bill and its potential impacts on released inmates.

"Thank you a million times," Enid Santiago, a representative of SELF! LV, a women's re-entry nonprofit organization said.

Lehigh County Commissioners
Jay Bradley
The members of the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners present at their second meeting in October 2023

"You don't know how happy I am right now to hear that this is finally in the forefront — that finally that our voices were heard."

Joe Welsh, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute, who led a re-entry simulation that included county officials this year, said, "While it may seem to the public that that's a simple thing, it really is not and it's very complicated.

"And the fact that that you're doing this, administration doing this is certainly to be commended."

Getting ID to inmates

Those without existing information required for an ID would, upon re-entry, visit a PennDOT driver's license center to get an ID using the pre-filled application.

To receive the ID, those with the pre-filled application would need to provide proof of identity with a Social Security card and birth certificate, certificate of citizenship or naturalization and a passport for citizens.

Lehigh County Courthouse
Stephanie Sigafoos
Lehigh County Courthouse in Allentown

Non-citizens would have to provide citizenship and immigration services documents, a Social Security card or Social Security Administration letter and either a passport, employment status verification or school attendance verification.

Incarcerated people 18 or older would have to present two of either a W-2 tax form, lease agreements, tax records, mortgage documents, current weapons permit or current utility bills.

If the person doesn't have any bills or residency in their name, they still would be required to provide two proofs of residency, such as the testimony of the person with whom they are staying or a piece of official mail with their name and address on it.

Fees would be waived if this process is done within 60 days.

"The fees sometimes seem small, but if you're just getting started, if you're just getting out of prison, that fee can be prohibitive to the point of making it not happen," Harrington said.