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New Jersey sent benefit checks to prisoners, report shows

NEW YORK — New Jersey paid nearly $24 million in unemployment, welfare, pension, and other benefits over 22 months to 20,000 people who did not qualify for them because they were in prison, according to a state comptroller report released Wednesday.

In one case, a former state employee collected more than $37,000 in pension benefits while in prison for the sexual assault of a minor. In another, a man began receiving jobless benefits three months after he was imprisoned for illegal gun possession — despite a law requiring people who receive benefits to be “available for work.”

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The report blames “a lack of adequate internal controls” at state agencies. In most cases, the agencies that administer the benefits did not check the list of beneficiaries against available databases of county or state prisoners.

“Suffice it to say that when thousands of inmates are collecting unemployment checks from behind bars, there is a serious gap in program oversight,” said Comptroller A. Matthew Boxer.

Governor Chris Christie’s office referred requests for comment to the New Jersey Department of Labor, which noted that the administration had begun “an unprecedented antifraud campaign” the first year the governor came into office. The department said that the period the audit examined, from July 2009 through April 2011, began a half-year before the Christie administration took over.

Nearly half of the payments — $10.6 million — were unemployment benefits paid out to about 7,600 people behind bars. Also, $4.2 million in food stamp benefits were sent to inmates.

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