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Senators Act To Stop Prisoner Abuse Of Public Benefits

A view of the Senate Chambers from the 2010-2011 Senate Reorganization.

Bill Would Require Verification of Unemployment Comp Checks Against Inmate Records

TRENTON – Acting to prevent inmates from fraudulently obtaining public benefits a Senate committee on Thursday approved legislation requiring the state to establish a verification process so that unemployment checks are not sent to prisoners. Responding to a recent investigation that found more than 7,600 inmates illegally collected approximately $10 million, Senator Fred Madden, (D-Camden/Gloucester), Senator Paul Sarlo, (D-Bergen/Passaic), Senator Sandra Cunningham, (D-Hudson) and Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May/Cumberland/Atlantic) sponsored legislation to prevent any further abuse of benefits programs by those serving time for criminal activities.

The Senate committee substitute for S-2626 and S-2838 was voted out of the Senate Labor Committee, which is chaired by Senator Madden.

“These benefits are intended to help those who really need it because they can’t find work, not for those serving time for their crimes,” said Senator Madden. “This bill will create a verification process and require state officials to check against inmate records to prevent any abuse of the system or misuse of the funds.”

The legislation would have the state Department of Corrections and the Administrative Office of the Courts supply the Department of Labor and Workforce Development – which distributes unemployment checks – with the names and Social Security numbers of every inmate in state prisons or county jails. The Labor Department would then be required to create a verification process to make sure no checks are sent to any prisoner.

“The verification process needs to be updated and modernized to make use of computerized technology,” said Senator Sarlo. “And state officials need to be thorough and diligent in checking all the records so these funds aren’t lost to convicted criminals engaging in fraudulent practices that amount to the theft of public resources.”

The State Comptroller recently completed an audit of the New Jersey Unemployment Compensation Program that identified the misspent funds. The majority of the fraud was committed by county inmates, exposing a weakness in the current verification process that fails to thoroughly check against county correctional records and that relies too much on informal controls, such as manual reviews of paper records. The new system would make use of electronic data that includes complete listings of county prisoners.

“There are a lot of people out of work who need and deserve these benefits to get by,” said Senator Cunningham. “That’s where the support should go, not to those who are behind bars.”

The bill also instructs the state to include death records in the reference system. A previous review of unemployment payments by the state auditor found 50 cases where a total of $237,000 was distributed after the “recipient” had died. One so-called claimant died in October of 2008 but collected more than $8,000 between February of 2010 and May of 2011 and six others were still collecting payments as of October 1, 2011 even though they died up to 11 months prior.

“The fraud that was uncovered in the public benefits program exposed a gaping hole in the system,” said Senator Van Drew. “This bill will strengthen oversight to ensure that inmates who are being supported by taxpayer dollars are not also collecting benefits they are not eligible for and that should be going to folks that need them.”