State of Hawaii

Criminal checks
aim at felons
on welfare

By Leila Fujimori

After discovering that 225 fleeing or suspected felons were receiving welfare benefits, the state will run annual or semiannual criminal checks on welfare recipients.

The state has calculated losses at $900,000 annually, the approximate amount in welfare benefits paid out in financial benefits and food stamps to 225 ineligible recipients.

"The state has lost millions to fleeing felons," said Deputy Attorney General Rick Damerville of the Criminal Justice Division.

The problem arises when people convicted of or charged with felonies in other states come to Hawaii and apply for welfare benefits. The act of fleeing prosecution or prison makes them ineligible, but until this year, there has been no way to cross-check the records of other states.

But thanks to an FBI computer program recently made available to the state Department of Human Services, the state announced last week that it had tracked down 225 individuals wanted for felonies, including kidnapping, sexual assault and drug and weapons offenses in 27 states and the District of Columbia.

DHS Chief Investigator Eric Weyenberg said once DHS learned of the program's availability in June, the department and the Office of the Attorney General took action.

Hawaii is one of only five states to use the FBI's technical assistance. Weyenberg explained that the program allows states with sophisticated computer equipment, like Hawaii's welfare system computer, to run a cross-check with the FBI's National Crime Information Center's data.

Unlike directly tapping into a database, the state's computer must first transcribe the entire list of welfare recipients on tape, which is sent to the FBI, making the process too labor-intensive to do every time someone applies for welfare benefits.

"Our welfare system is so overburdened already," he said, so the checks will be made either annually or every six months.

The investigation has already led to the apprehension of seven military deserters by the U.S. marshal's office, Weyenberg said.

Patricia Murakami, administrator of DHS's Benefit, Employment and Support Services Division, said eligibility workers will continue to be diligent for suspicious individuals applying for welfare.

"For the eligibility worker, there was no way they could get that information themselves," she said.

They do ask for applicants' criminal history. If an applicant appears suspicious because of not having proper identification or giving inconsistent information, the worker contacts the DHS's investigations office, which can check on a person's background.

DHS will not only stop future payments, but will attempt to recover any inappropriate payments made, Murakami said.

"We can only act on those with current warrants and (who) were receiving benefits," Weyenberg said. They include convicted felons, either paroled, on probation or escapees, and those charged or indicted who have jumped bail.

Those who knew they were wanted for a felony offense and hid that information will be prosecuted for welfare fraud.

Damerville said the real problem, however, is that often the state in which the fleeing felon or suspect committed the original crime does not want to pay for the extradition to have the individual returned and will not enforce the warrant.

"The way the system works, it encourages people to run," he said, adding that while in hiding, they are apt to commit more crimes.

State of Hawaii

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