Op-Ed: It Shouldn’t Be So Hard to Obtain a State ID in New Jersey

Jamal Brown | February 27, 2019 | Opinion
A bill that would make access to a state ID easier has stalled in the Legislature. Countless people would be helped if lawmakers would just move the measure forward

Jamal Brown
Addiction and its consequences have once again become the center of national conversations with the urgent need to address the opioid epidemic. We are a nation that believes in second chances, to allow a person to heal so that they can reintegrate into society and live a healthy life. For me, it has taken more than 13 years, and it is still a process to be part of my kids’ lives again. Along the way, a seemingly small challenge, being able to replace my state ID, became pivotal for me in turning my life around.

Thirteen years ago, I lost custody of my two children and spent four-and-a-half years in prison for poor decisions. After I served my time, the only place I had to go was home. Unfortunately, this place was full of people using drugs and I slipped back into the bad habits that cost me a season of my life. I quickly became homeless and a small thing happened that would have significant repercussions in my life later: my ID expired. At the time, it wasn’t a priority for me. However, after a couple of health scares, I was determined to be a part of my children’s lives again and found out just how important it is to have a valid ID.

For most people, renewing your ID card is simple. You take your most important documents and head to the Motor Vehicle Commission. However, for people like me, with complex situations, who have faced incarceration and homelessness, these important documents often are not within reach, inhibiting access to health and social services.

Without a state ID card, I was unable to go before a judge in an attempt to be a part of my kids’ lives. I was told to wait until I had proper ID and other legal documents in order. However, waiting isn’t realistic when you need to start building a relationship with your growing children again. For me, not being able to renew my state ID contributed to me not being able to be in my daughter’s life.

For people with complex health and social needs like myself, the ins and outs of getting the necessary documentation for renewing an ID card are out of reach. Navigating the process of reaching the correct agencies and paying to have replacement documents sent to me was a hurdle that kept me, and keeps people like me, from a necessary ID card.

Difficult for those who are homeless or have been in prison

Especially for people who are homeless, or who have been in prison, we often can’t access the proper paperwork to get or renew an ID. It wasn’t until I had a caseworker at South Jersey Behavioral Health Resources and Camden Coalition’s Housing First program provided me with housing that I was able to start the process of replacing my crucial documents.

Since some people don’t have access to their birth certificate, Social Security card, or proof of residence, there need to be more options for applying for a state ID. If you receive public assistance, you should be able to use your welfare or Direct Express card as proof. If you have served your time, you should be able to use your county-issued jail ID card as a proof of identity at the MVC.

Currently, the New Jersey Legislature has stalled on a bill that would make access to a state ID easier for many residents, including people like me. Legislation (A-4743/S-3229) will help people with complex needs, usually left out of the system, be able to apply for a standard state ID card or a driver’s license with a larger variety of documents to prove identity, residence, and age. It will help half a million residents including survivors of violence, undocumented residents, and seniors access state IDs and driver’s licenses. Twelve other states and Washington, D.C. have already successfully opened access to all residents, regardless of their immigration status.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin has the power to put this bill up for a vote in committees to move it forward. Passing this legislation would make our system easier for people like me to navigate. However, if we continue to push this measure down the road once more, New Jersey’s poor and working families will be pushed to the sidelines. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Mr. Coughlin, please put this bill up for a vote now so that it can reach the governor’s desk.