California has approved unemployment benefits for 20,000 prisoners, prosecutors say U.S. prisons

In California, the unemployment benefit payment system is not working so well that the state has approved more than $ 140 million for at least 20,000 inmates, local and federal prosecutors said.

Law enforcement officials said Tuesday that more than 35,000 inmates have been named in lawsuits filed with the California Department of Employment Development between March and August. More than 20,000 were paid, according to Anne Marie Schubert, a Sacramento County district attorney.

At least 158 ​​lawsuits were filed against 133 people sentenced to death, representing more than $ 420,000 in benefits paid.

The revelation is the latest controversy surrounding the disputed state employment agency. Having already operated the archaic system, the department has benefited from more than 16.4 million benefits since the March pandemic, resulting in more than 1.6 million people falling behind at one time. With so many Californians struggling to get access to work and navigate the state’s dysfunctional employment process, the backlog increased to 10,000 cases a day in the fall. California residents reported struggling to file claims and barely got to the agency’s line to ask questions.

The crisis was particularly brutal for people of color and immigrants, and an audit found that non-English-speaking workers faced insurmountable barriers to accessing aid, further exacerbating racial inequalities in the pandemic.

Some residents who are unable to get unemployment have reported burning through their savings and being left without food as a result.

Prosecutors said the approval of benefits rushed to the ministry did not check unemployment claims on the list of prisoners, as many other states do.

Stephen Wagstaffe, a San Mateo district attorney, said when he notified the department of detainees who had fraudulently received benefits, officials told him they could not suspend payments until they were formally charged with a crime.

The problem was so serious that on Monday, nine county district attorneys sent a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom asking him to intervene.

Newsom told the Associated Press that it learned of the fraud earlier this year.

Loree Levy, a spokeswoman for the employment development department, said the agency is working with the labor department’s chief oversight office to cross-check allegations against inmates, saying they are “working to integrate such cross-matches as an improved part. preventive efforts in this unprecedented period of pandemic unemployment fraud across the country ’.

Prosecutors said they learned about the system from listening to phone calls recorded in prison. It was said that someone from outside was always involved in the scheme, usually friends or family members of the detainees, who then received the benefits.

In Kern County, home to five state prisons, an address was used to care for 16 inmates.

“In my nearly four decades of prosecutorial work in this state, I’ve never seen such a scam,” said Cynthia Zimmer, a district attorney at Kern County.

Prosecutors say Scott Peterson, who has been sentenced to death after being convicted of killing his pregnant wife, is on the list of inmates named in the claims. The California Supreme Court recently overturned Peterson’s death sentence and ordered the lower court to review his murder sentence.

Schubert confirmed that a claim had been filed on behalf of Scott Peterson, but declined to provide further details.

Peterson’s attorney, Pat Harris, said that while Peterson’s name was revealed during the investigation, there is no evidence that Peterson received unemployment benefits from the state.

“This investigation, when completed, shows that it had nothing to do with any system to achieve fraudulent benefits,” Harris said.

So far, 22 people have been indicted in San Mateo County, including six who were not in prison. According to prosecutors, dozens of state investigations are ongoing.

The scandal comes when Covid wreaked havoc on the state’s overcrowded prison system, infecting more than 19,000 inmates and killing 85.