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Taxpayers are getting soaked for food stamps, unemployment benefits and other assistance payments to hundreds of Utah state prisoners and fugitives who are ineligible to receive them, according to a new legislative audit made public Monday.
The Legislative Auditor General's preliminary report surveying just a sample of the inmate and fugitive population found 179 prisoners in January 2012 received various public benefits payments while behind bars, a process that violates state and federal rules.
An additional 281 fugitives, of the 1,112 supervised by the Utah Department of Corrections, received benefits while wanted for felony or misdemeanor violations, the audit found.
The audit was limited in scale, and accounted for a very small sample of the total fugitive population those on the run or with outstanding warrants. It also included only state inmates in prisons, not those housed in county jails.
The audit found 25 percent of the fugitives sampled and 2 percent of the inmatesinappropriately received benefits.
"We do not know to what extent [all the state's fugitives] are receiving public assistance, but if it is close to the rate we found at UDC, concerns raised in this report would be greatly amplified,"auditors wrote, recommending a full-blown review.
It's not clear how much public money was inappropriately given to inmates or fugitives in Utah.
"To reiterate, our review revealed a concerning lack of controls over public assistance eligibility in regards to fugitives and inmates," the audit stated.
If a more intensive review is conducted, Utah could be in for a big surprise.
An extensive report byNew Jersey Comptroller Matt Boxerreleased in May showed that the state inappropriately paid inmates $23.6 million in financial assistance over two years.
A similar Illinois report showed 420 people received benefits while behind bars, inappropriate spending that could amount to $7 million annually, the Chicago Tribune reported in July 2012.
Illinois is now working to recover the money, and working with new networks to avoid doling out state and federal money to fraudulent recipients.
"So what happens is we stop those benefit payments before they begin," said Greg Rivara, Illinois Department of Employment Security spokesman.
The Utah audit repeatedly mentioned the scope of the review was limited, and called on the Department of Workforce Services to work with the Department of Corrections and other state and local agencies to tighten control and prevent fraud by inmates or fugitives.
Fugitives include people with warrants for crimes that could be minor or severe. In June 2013, there were more than 216,000 outstanding warrants in the state, and some benefits recipients could be headed to jail and later deemed ineligible.
The audit made three recommendations for the Department of Workforce Services to tighten control and oversight over benefit spending. Two included more thorough review in checking state and federal databases to ensure inmates and fugitives don't receive benefits. A third called for various agencies to collaborate for tighter control.
The department will spend the rest of this year working with the Department of Corrections and Utah Public Safety studying how to implement more efficient controls over the systems, said Nic Dunn, DWS public information officer. It will then implement system changes starting Jan. 1, 2014, Dunn said.
"This wasn't something new per se, we are always looking to be as accurate as possible and as efficient as possible with how we administer public benefits," Dunn said.
The inmates and fugitives outlined in the audit represent only 0.12 percent of the total Utah population receiving public assistance, Dunn said. "So when you look at that, it's a small problem, but it's an important problem."