Editor’s note: The Philadelphia Tribune will examine the impact of the state’s new voter identification law, how it could affect different segments of Philadelphia’s population, and what they need to do to obtain the required identification. This article takes a look at how the law could impact ex-offenders.
An estimated 30,000 ex-offenders living in Philadelphia, the average number of people released from the county jail each year, could be disenfranchised by the state’s new voter ID law.
“The [state] Department of State talked about how they are targeting different groups to make sure they get their IDs, but they never talked about the hundreds of thousands of people who get discharged from prison each day across this state,” said Wayne Jacobs, director of X-offenders for Community Empowerment. “What is the strategy to make sure that those folks are not denied the opportunity to vote?”
State officials have broken down the problems most residents will face in trying to obtain an ID into three broad categories: people who once had a valid driver’s license that is now expired; Pennsylvania natives who have never had a state identification card; and registered voters, typically not born in Pennsylvania, who are unable to get a copy of their birth certificate.
State Rep. Cherelle Parker, chair of Philadelphia’s House delegation, held an informational meeting on Wednesday with officials from the state Department of State, members of the press and representatives from a number of community organizations in an effort to explain the new law.
Though the requirements are the same for ex-offenders as for other segments of the population, they will likely have to add a few additional steps to obtain a state ID.
“They follow the same procedures as anyone else,” said Ron Ruman, press secretary for the Department of State at the meeting this week.
Ex-offenders are eligible for a free, state identification card to vote, just like everyone else. And, Ruman said, they are very likely to fall into one of the three broad categories outlined by the state.
But, Jacobs pointed out that many lack the documents required by the state.
As an example, he pointed to the fact that the PennDOT requires a Social Security card, as well as one of the following: a valid passport, birth certificate with raised seal, or certificate of citizenship or naturalization. In addition, proof of residence is required in the form of an item such as a tax record document, a W-2 form or a utility bill.
It’s the last requirement that worries Jacobs.
“A person that’s just getting out of jail doesn’t have that,” he said, noting that many move back in with family members or friends.
Ruman said ex-offenders, who may be living with someone else and can’t prove where they live, should bring the person they live with to the PennDOT office with them.
“You bring an individual along that would have proof of residency,” Ruman said.
“So now mom has to take the day off work?” asked Jacobs.
The state has promised that people being released from state prisons will now be released with a valid state ID card that can be used at the polls in November,” said Megan Sweeney, special assistant at the state Department of State.
However, people being released from county jail are not guaranteed an ID. In Philadelphia, that could be as many as 30,000 people every year, said William Hart, executive director of the Mayor’s Office for Reintegration Services for Ex-offenders.
“It’s a significant portion of Philadelphia residents that may be disenfranchised because of a lack of ID,” Hart said.
Parker said her office would meet with local prison officials to see if a solution to the problem could be ironed out.
Ruman also noted that anyone wanting to vote in the upcoming election must be registered before they apply for an ID. The last day that Pennsylvanians can register to vote in the Nov. 6 election is Oct. 9.
A recent report by the state Department of State found that 18 percent of Philadelphians — or 186,830 of the city’s registered voters — do not have a photo ID that meets the state’s requirement to cast a ballot in November. Across the state, that number ballooned to 758,000 registered voters — or 9.2 percent of all registered voters.
With thousands of ex-offenders in Philadelphia, those with convictions find themselves facing challenges in their efforts to return to normal society after their release from prison. This is especially true when it comes to employment.
For this reason, Wayne Jacobs, co-founder and executive director of X-Offenders for Community Empowerment, a non-profit organization which assist returning citizens in their attempts to successfully reintegrate with society after their release, is hosting Pardon Me Clinics in West Philadelphia.
“When looking at the issue of formerly convicted people, you have two sets of folks: you have one that is on probation and parole and then you have those who are no longer on probation or parole,” Jacobs said.
He noted the primary focus have been on those who are newly released from prison and currently under parole or probation supervision.
“They have not been focusing on folks who have been home and crime free and how to give them a second chance,” Jacobs said. X-Offenders for Community Empowerment has stepped in to help this often overlooked segment of the population by hosting Pardon-me clinics where they assist with pardon and expungement applications.
So what is the difference between a pardon and an expungement?
“It’s really simple,” Jacobs said. “If you were ever convicted for a misdemeanor or a felony, you would need to go to the governor to apply for a pardon.”
However, those arrested but never convicted or convicted of a summary offense and have been crime free for five years, was convicted of a non-violent offense as a juvenile or have reached the age of 70, you can apply to have your record expunged.
Oddly enough, you can also apply for an expungement three days after your death. Asked how a dead person could apply for an expungement? Jacobs could only answer:
“Good question, I haven’t figured that one out yet.”
The Pardon-Me Clinics are self-help clinics where attendants are guided through the process of applying for either pardons or expungements, said Jacobs.
“We do not do people’s work but we will assist them and show them how to do the work,” Jacobs said.
During clinics, attendants will be given a two-hour workshop which will explain the pardons and expungement process.
“They also explain what the Pardon Board wants to hear and what they don’t want to hear and we explain how to completely fill out the application. Once the application is completed, we will type it in a professional manner and file it for them.”
Since beginning this work seven years ago, the Pardon-Me Clinics have spread to six locations throughout Philadelphia as well as one in Pittsburg. All free to those who utilize their services.
“The only costs are what the state requires,” Jacobs said. “We do not charge. There is a cost to acquire your application, get your criminal background checks, get your picture taken and get copies and a filing fee but these are costs associated with the application process itself.”
The requirements and filing fees differ depending upon whether you are filing for an expungement or a pardon.
Those interested in learning more or wish to get the time and location of upcoming clinics can visit the X-Offenders for Community Empowerment website at offenders.org.
Pardon-Me clinics will be held at the Sayre/Morris Recreation Center at 5835 Spruce St., Monday, March 18, April 15, May 20 and June 17 from 6 to 8 p.m.
Call Darlene Waller at: (215) 685-1994 for more information.