If Fugitives Qualify for Welfare, Then Crime Really Pays, Critics Say : Social policy: Those on the lam can legally collect benefits, and privacy laws limit information that can be shared with police. Some lawmakers call it an outrage.


Convicts who jump bail before sentencing or who violate parole or probation can legally collect welfare benefits while lying low. Under current welfare law, the government can’t do a thing about it.

Federal welfare statutes do not exclude fugitives from public assistance. Privacy laws limit the exchange of information between police, who have hundreds of thousands of fugitive warrants on file, and welfare agencies, which have no way to know which of their clients are fugitives.

“If you meet the eligibility requirements, then you’re eligible for assistance,” said Joe Silver, a lawyer with the Ohio Department of Human Services. “If your benefits are terminated or your application is denied, it has to be because you didn’t meet the criteria.”


In Cleveland, Cuyahoga County sheriff’s deputies were surprised to learn that at least 91 of 330 fugitives rounded up in a six-month sting last year were receiving welfare. The suspects were getting an average of $300 a month in benefits, Lt. Daniel Pukach said.

The number of Cleveland fugitives on welfare may actually have been higher; deputies didn’t begin tracking the number until the third month of the sting, Pukach said.

“The Department of Human Services had known where these people were living and was subsidizing their criminal activity at taxpayer expense,” Pukach said.

Amid the rising clamor for national welfare reform, word of this legal loophole raises hackles.

“I think it’s outrageous that we have a situation where . . . taxpayers are supporting someone who is a fugitive from justice,” said Rep. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), ranking Republican on the subcommittee that will consider President Clinton’s expected welfare reform proposals this year.

“You can escape justice and the government will support you in doing so? And you have no fear of getting caught by getting access to government benefits? It’s ridiculous.”


No firm figures exist on the number of felons who are on the lam and on the dole. Silver says he’s never seen a survey that tried to link the two.

“Because it’s not an eligibility factor, it’s not something that’s really been looked at,” Silver said.

But Pukach, a 22-year veteran of the sheriff’s department, said “easily a third” of the fugitives he arrests have identity cards from the county welfare department.

“Just the other day we sent 80 cards over to the welfare department from people who had come through the jail,” Pukach said.

The cards are turned over to the welfare department because it is illegal to receive welfare while jailed. Valid cards are returned to eligible recipients when they are released from jail or post bond.

But unless fugitives are caught--and officers say many never are--they can continue to collect benefits.


About 357,000 fugitive warrants, some of them dating back years, are on file at the National Crime Information Center, which gets its data from police jurisdictions around the country, spokesman John Kundts said.

Cuyahoga County alone has almost 13,000 outstanding warrants, and deputies can pursue only a fraction of them.

“You have to prioritize who you can look for--the suspected murderer or the probation violator on a grand-theft conviction,” Pukach said. “A warrant is a warrant . . . but there really comes a point where you have to prioritize.”

Last year, Cuyahoga County deputies tried to make a dent in the backlog. They picked 4,000 files and sent letters to last known addresses, informing recipients they were eligible to collect part of a settlement the state had won in a consumer fraud class-action lawsuit. Claimants were told where to pick up their checks. Those who showed were nabbed.

Despite the sting’s relative success, deputies were furious when county Human Services Director Joseph Garcia refused to allow them to match the warrants against welfare rolls. He said he had no choice: State and federal laws make much information about welfare recipients confidential.

The federal government has three primary welfare programs: Aid to Families with Dependent Children, designed to meet the needs of children in families where one or both parents are missing or unemployed; Medicaid, which provides basic health coverage for the poor; and food stamps, coupons that can be spent like cash for staple foods.


State programs, such as General Assistance and Disability Assistance in Ohio, pay benefits to people who have no income or cannot work because of health problems.

At the federal level, only AFDC rules permit any information exchange between law officers and welfare workers, said David Boomer, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington. Confidentiality laws for state programs vary.

But neither federal nor state regulations disqualify fugitives from receiving welfare. And states can’t exclude fugitives on their own because they may not impose stricter eligibility criteria than the federal government’s, Silver said.

Henry Freedman, director of the Center for Social Welfare Policy and Law in New York City, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said no one should be denied such basic needs as food, clothing and shelter--even if fleeing the law.

“These are things people need to survive,” Freedman said. “By the same token, you wouldn’t say emergency rooms should turn away people who are fugitives and in need of medical assistance.”

Freedman acknowledges the problem but opposes adding language to welfare regulations to bar benefits to fugitives.


“Whenever you add more hurdles to receiving aid,” Freedman said, “you keep many needy individuals and families from getting the aid they need.”

But Dennis Martin, a retired police chief in Maple Grove, Mich., and incoming executive director of the National Assn. of Chiefs of Police, said any system that subsidizes crime is out of control.

“When you have a system where it’s difficult for agencies like the police and social services to work together . . . not only are criminals not paying the price for the crimes they’ve committed, but you’re really hammering the taxpayer,” Martin said. “It appears that crime really does pay.”