A clunky computerized data system that maintained information on inmates in New Jersey's county jails was largely responsible for $23.6 million in unemployment benefits, Medicaid coverage, food stamps, and cash assistance received by those behind bars, state Comptroller A. Matthew Boxer said Wednesday.
In most of the cases, the benefits were improperly paid. The inmates - 20,000 in all - were not qualified for them since they were receiving room, board, and medical care while in prison, Boxer said.
"The data was there, but no one was using it," Boxer said Wednesday, hours after his office released a 28-page audit on the payments. "The data hadn't been massaged in a way that was usable."
He mainly blamed a lack of coordination between the county jail data system and the data systems used by other state departments.
The problem was less severe when it related to inmates in state prisons.
"It wasn't that [any] one agency dropped the ball," Boxer said. "But nobody grabbed [the data] and sought to filter and use it."
Boxer's report covers July 2009 to April 2011.
Boxer said information technology specialists in his department and in the Office of the Administration of the Courts, which administers county jail records, have since worked to make the county jail data more usable, so state agencies can cross-check their records against the jail records.
"We've given them a road map to use," he said, adding that all the agencies named in the audit have promised to use the data.
"Our audit identifies simple but critical steps that will help ensure that tax dollars spent on these programs are reserved for those who actually qualify for benefits," Boxer said when the report was released.
The report does not differentiate between inmates incarcerated while serving sentences and those who have been arrested but not charged or convicted, or who have been unable to make bail.
And that poses a problem for Cornell William Brooks, chief executive of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice Network, a statewide organization based in Newark that looks at criminal justice issues.
Brooks said that without differentiation between the classes of inmates, some who should be getting benefits won't.
He said the audit was "solid," but his organization has equal concern about people who are getting benefits when they shouldn't and those who might lose their rightful benefits in a sweep that captures headlines.
The state's Department of Labor and Workforce Development paid $10.6 million in unemployment benefits to 7,600 people during the time covered by the audit.
"Unfortunately the department did not have access to county prisoner data," Labor Commissioner Harold J. Wirths wrote in a response letter to an early copy of the audit.
The lack of county prisoner data, Wirths wrote, was responsible for almost all of the unemployment benefits paid to inmates.
The law requires that people receiving jobless benefits be available and able to work.
"Suffice it to say that when thousands of inmates are collecting unemployment checks from behind bars, there is a serious gap in program oversight," Boxer said in a statement.
The report notes that in some cases, fraud would have to have been involved, since inmates, like all other jobless people, would have been required to regularly contact the Labor Department and attest to their availability for work.
The situation is more complicated for the programs supervised by the Department of Human Services, according to a letter from its commissioner, Jennifer Velez.
For example, the audit found that $7.1 million was overpaid in Medicaid payments.
"There are circumstances in which an individual is detained but not booked; detained, booked, but not arraigned; detained and arraigned with charges, but released on bail, and the like," wrote Velez in a May 8 response to a draft report.
"Depending on the circumstance, Medicaid eligibility may or may not be suspended," she said.
Her department also oversaw what the audit described as nearly $4.3 million in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp, benefits given to inmates, as well as $1.2 million in public assistance benefits.
The audit also said that $354,158 in state pensions had been paid to former state employees behind bars. Pension rules say a pension may be denied for crimes of "moral turpitude," but that definition is open to debate.