California’s unemployment benefits system has been rife with fraud since the pandemic began and may have handed out upwards of $1 billion to jail and prison inmates, a coalition of local, state and federal prosecutors announced at a Sacramento news conference on Nov. 24.
Tens of thousands of inmates at county, state and federal prisons and jails have received unemployment benefits, including convicted murderers serving life sentences or sitting on death row. Benefits already paid out in their names could total more than $1 billion, and amount to “perhaps one of the biggest frauds of taxpayer dollars in California history,” Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said during the news conference, which was streamed online.
The California Employment Development has formed a task force to address the issue. The task force and prosecutors found fraud that Schubert called “honestly staggering,” including benefits going to inmates in every California prison.
Between March and August, there were 35,000 benefit claims on behalf of imprisoned people, and 20,000 of those claims were paid. Some of the state benefit debit cards were sent directly to inmates at their prison addresses under their real names; other inmates used outside addresses, aliases or fake or stolen names and social security numbers. They frequently had help from friends and relatives on the outside.
Unlike 35 other states, California does not have a system in place to check the names of benefit applicants against a list of jail and prison inmates.
Of the 700-plus inmates on death row in San Quentin, 133 had filed for unemployment benefits. There are “a lot of notorious people” on that list, including serial killers, Schubert said.
Unemployment benefit fraud is also rampant in local jails, she said.
“The breadth of this problem is massive,” Schubert said.