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Criticism of U.S. Felon Program Grows

Benefits: Thousands of blind, disabled and aging Californians have lost Social Security payments after they were tracked down for long-ago crimes.

September 06, 2002|STEVE BERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal program designed to catch fugitives and deny them welfare benefits has snared thousands of blind, disabled and aging Californians. The program is coming under growing criticism from California lawyers representing the indigent.

The fugitive-felon program has funded a massive computer dragnet that has saved $130 million and led to the arrest of thousands of fugitives, law enforcement officials said.

Most of those caught are the aged, blind and disabled who are accused of violating probation and parole or other nonviolent crimes, many of which are decades old.

The program has suspended Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to nearly 7,500 blind, disabled and aged Californians since 1996, according to figures from the Social Security Administration.

The SSI recipients also have been ordered to reimburse the agency for some payments.

The program compares computer databases of aid recipients with fugitives. When Social Security turned the names and addresses of those aged and disabled recipients over to California law enforcement agencies, authorities apprehended 2,831 of them, according to Social Security statistics. The statistics showed that very few of them were murderers, rapists, robbers, kidnappers or other violent offenders.

About 90% of those arrested in California have been violators of probation, parole or some nonviolent crimes.

Nationwide, 4,721 have been arrested and 45,000 recipients have had their benefits suspended.

Since midsummer, public defenders, court officials, legal aid lawyers and law enforcement officers in California have been contacted by people threatened with loss of benefits.

Social Security officials said they will restore assistance if recipients provide proof that warrants have been cleared, said Mariana Gitomer, spokesman for the Social Security Administration in California.

"A lot of taxpayers would be indignant to know that public funds are being used as fuel to escape law enforcement," said Dick Lynch, director of Social Security's Strategic Enforcement Division at the agency's Office of Inspector General in Baltimore.

"Who can argue against the benefit of taking murderers, kidnappers and armed robbers off the street?" he said.

Critics complain that the program has not focused on such crimes.

"They make this sound like a law enforcement jihad, when they actually are getting old, toothless people who are easy to find and not fleeing from anyone," said Bruce Schweiger, a Los Angeles County deputy public defender, who alone has answered more than 100 calls in the last three or four weeks.

"They are using a fire hose to extinguish a birthday candle," he said.

San Francisco lawyer Jane Gelfand, whose Positive Resource Center represents people with HIV, said, "These are people who are severely disabled with limited assets and income and frequently cut off from family, friends or other social support."

One of her clients, Mark Pruitt, thought that he had completed probation for a drunken-driving conviction in Florida.

Pruitt, 41, said he never heard anything further about the incident until he got a notice from Social Security officials last year saying that his SSI benefits would be suspended. He said the SSI check provided one-third of his monthly income and helped pay for some of the drugs he needs to combat full-blown AIDS. He has diabetes and high blood pressure. Two hip replacement surgeries, a degenerative shoulder condition and deteriorating joints have left him unable to hold down jobs requiring much physical exertion, Pruitt said.

In San Diego County, Chief Deputy Public Defender Bob Stall said most of the cases "are quite old, 15 years or older, and involve nonviolent offenses, drugs, bad-check cases."

One great-grandmother in Los Angeles lost her benefits because she never completed probation on a 1973 drug possession conviction. Dora Price, 65, spent six months in County Jail that year and then violated probation early the next year, court records show.

Price said she moved to Shreveport, La., to escape the daily, unrelenting pressure from her drug-using friends to resume her narcotics use.

There, she beat her drug habit and got "a good-paying" job making telephones for AT&T. She returned to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and has a clean record.

Her notice came June 17, suspending her $175 monthly SSI check. She was left with $600 a month for rent, utilities and groceries.

Price got good news this week. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, at the request of her public defender, voided the arrest warrant.

Although the law is called the fugitive-felon law, former SSI recipient Yolanda Randall, 50, never fled after she broke probation 27 years ago over a gambling-related charge in Los Angeles. Randall, 50, continued living in her home for two years after the judge entered a bench warrant for her arrest in 1975. Court records show that Randall's violation was failure to pay a $150 fine.

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