10/24/2014

Prisoner ID Project and Criminal Justice Reform

I first met Dorothy “Dot” Werst at Emerson Hospital, when coincidentally, in my first term as a legislator, I was recuperating from Achilles tendon surgery in the same room as Dot’s husband, Len. Dot and Len were incredibly warm and friendly to me, and it made a strong connection that would prove fruitful many years later.

That is when, as a State Senator, I got to talking with Dot about her work as the founder and director of the Boston Share Network, a non-profit that provides clothing, supplies, and financial assistance to Boston homeless shelters, and the homeless. As a former Legal Aid attorney and the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Housing, my staff and I have spent a lot of time addressing the state’s homeless crisis. Based on our common interest in helping the homeless, Dot and I began to talk about a new initiative.

Senator Eldridge with Dot Werst (Center) at a Boston Share Network strategy meeting.

Senator Eldridge with Dot Werst (Center) at a Boston Share Network strategy meeting.

During one of our conversations, Dot explained to me that one of the challenges that homeless people had in the shelters is that many of them no longer had a legal state ID. This meant that for those who were beginning to get back off their feet, homeless men and women faced the obstacle of not being to apply for a job, rent an apartment, or receive public benefits. That’s why Dot had created the You Are Somebody ID program that paid for homeless men and women to receive their IDs, both to help improve their lives, and even get back a little dignity.

Dot’s explanation connected me to an issue that I’ve begun to spend more and more time on – criminal justice reform. Over the past two years, I’ve worked closely with an organization founded in his district, End Mass Incarceration Together (EMIT), and many of the members are mentors and tutors in the medium and maximum-security prisons in Shirley, another town that Jamie represents. In addition, I’ve also worked closely with EPOCA, FAMM, and the Jobs Not Jails campaign. Some of the conversation that I’ve had with these volunteers and activists concerned the fact that the Department of Correction (DOC) was often releasing prisoners who had served their time without issuing a new state ID. Therefore, many prisoners across the state were returning to their communities without an ID, therefore erecting yet another barrier to be a productive member of society, such as applying for a job, renting an apartment, or connecting with social services.

That was when Dot and I teamed up to ask the DOC and the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) to collaborate, and provide state-issued IDs to all prisoners, upon release. With the able assistance of my Legislative Aide, Kelsey Smithwood, a meeting was arranged in my office between the RMV and the DOC, where it was agreed that this was a partnership that could come together in the next contract cycle for producing IDs.

I’m very pleased to announce that this collaboration has been agreed to by the state, providing yet another example of the commitment that Governor Patrick has shown to criminal justice reform in Massachusetts. And further, a shining example of how one idea from one amazing person, Dot Werst, can transform public policy in a way that affects thousands of people.

For more information on the Boston Share Network and to make a donation, please visit the Boston Share Network website or contact Dot at bostonshare@yahoo.com.

To learn more about my work on criminal justice reform, and addressing the state’s homelessness crisis, email James.Eldridge@masenate.gov, call 617-722-1120, or visit my website at www.SenatorEldridge.com.

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