Welfare Reform:

Implementation of Fugitive Felon Provisions Should Be Strengthened

GAO-02-716: Published: Sep 25, 2002. Publicly Released: Oct 25, 2002.

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In response to concerns that individuals wanted in connection with a felony or violating terms of their parole or probation could receive benefits from programs for the needy, Congress added provisions to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 that prohibit these individuals from receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Food Stamp benefits, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and make fugitive felon status ground for the termination of tenancy in federal housing assistance programs. In addition, the act directs these programs to provide law enforcement officers with information about program recipients for whom there are outstanding warrants to assist in their apprehension. Actions taken to implement the act's fugitive felon provisions have varied substantially by program. In implementing provisions to prohibit benefits to fugitive felons, all but housing assistance programs include, at a minimum, a question about fugitive felon status in their applications. SSI and some state Food Stamp and TANF programs also seek independent verification of fugitive felon status by using computer matching to compare arrest warrant and program recipient files. To date, 110,000 beneficiaries have been identified as fugitive felons and dropped from the SSI, Food Stamp, and TANF rolls, and many have been apprehended. Computerized file matching has been responsible for the identification of most of these fugitive felons. Aggressive implementation of the act's fugitive felon provisions poses a number of challenges for programs. First, centralized and complete national and statewide arrest warrant data for computer matching are not readily available. Second, because direct access to arrest warrants and criminal records is limited to law enforcement personnel, computer matching requires what many state TANF and Food Stamp officials view as a burdensome and complex negotiation process to obtain these records. Third, the absence of information and guidance about how to conduct file matching and overcome its logistical challenges has also hindered aggressive implementation of the law. Finally, there is evidence that individuals with outstanding warrants for felonies, or probation or parole violations, may continue to collect benefits because there may be differences in the interpretation of what constitutes a fugitive felon within the Food Stamp and TANF programs.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HUD's Office of Inspector General (OIG) established an ongoing Fugitive Felon Initiative in FY 2003. Under this initiative, the HUD OIG initially computer-matched HUD's nationwide tenant file with the arrest warrant database maintained by the U.S. Marshals Service, which helped identify tenants in housing assistance programs who were fugitive felons. In June 2004, HUD expanded its computer matching to include the Wanted Person File of the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. In addition, the OIG worked with state and local law enforcement utilizing their Wanted Person data. As of August 2005, the Fugitive Felon Initiative resulted in the apprehension of over 5,900 wanted felons.

    Recommendation: To better implement the act's fugitive felon provisions, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development should test the feasibility and effectiveness of routinely matching its nationwide tenant file with the National Crime Investigation Center (NCIC) arrest warrant database as a means of identifying tenants in housing assistance programs nationwide who are fugitive felons and subject to eviction.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2003, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued an 11-page guide for public housing agencies with instructions on how to obtain national fingerprint checks and criminal records to screen out applicants for--or evict tenants in--public housing who are fugitive felons. In addition, HUD issued specific guidance to contract administrators on the circumstances under which they are to provide information on fugitive felons to law enforcement.

    Recommendation: To better implement the act's fugitive felon provisions, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development should issue guidance on the circumstances under which federal housing programs are required to provide information about residents in federally subsidized housing to law enforcement agencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: HHS continues to disagree with this recommendation, maintaining that it calls for action not authorized under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996. As such, HHS believed that implementing it would infringe on the authority and flexibility PRWORA gives states to establish their own eligibility rules and procedures.

    Recommendation: To oversee and better implement these provisions in the TANF program, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should encourage states to test the feasibility and effectiveness of routinely matching TANF applicant and recipient records with arrest warrants by providing them with information on the matching activities of other state TANF programs and their results and on accessing available arrest warrant databases such as NCIC.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: HHS continues to disagree with this recommendation, maintaining that under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), states are free to choose how they will meet the fugitive felon requirements. HHS believes state and local governments can better determine how to address the needs and interests of both law enforcement and TANF programs through innovative and collaborative practices.

    Recommendation: To oversee and better implement these provisions in the TANF program, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should monitor states' computerized matching efforts to identify fugitive felons and their results.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: HHS maintains that the Office of Management and Budget's single state compliance audits and feedback it receives from the state agencies have not identified problems with the implementation of the fugitive felon provisions. Contrary to GAO's recommendation, HHS continues to believe that this recommendation is not warranted and maintains that it already has an active and effective system for states to request guidance, when needed.

    Recommendation: To oversee and better implement these provisions in the TANF program, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should determine what criteria state TANF programs are using to remove recipients wanted for felonies or probation or parole violations from the TANF rolls, and if these criteria differ across states, provide TANF programs with clear guidance on the circumstances under which benefits to fugitive felons should be terminated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: HHS continues to disagree with this recommendation and does not believe additional national guidance is needed because 44 state TANF agencies have already developed their own guidance. In addition, HHS pointed out that it was unaware of any law enforcement agencies that had problems with TANF agencies failing to respond to their requests for information.

    Recommendation: To oversee and better implement these provisions in the TANF program, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should issue guidance on the circumstances under which TANF programs are required to provide information about TANF recipients to law enforcement agencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Foods and Nutrition Service (FNS) worked with the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the State of Delaware to develop a project that would test new procedures for identifying fugitive felons. Specifically, in August 2003, FNS initiated a pilot project with Delaware's Department of Health and Social Services to test procedures for identifying fugitive felons. The pilot allowed law enforcement agents to apprehend fugitive felons on food stamps before the food stamp office closed their case. This information can help other state food stamp agenices improve their guidance to better implement the fugitive felon provisions.

    Recommendation: To oversee and better implement these provisions in the Food Stamp program, the Secretary of Agriculture should encourage states to test the feasibility and effectiveness of routinely matching Food Stamp applicant and recipient records with arrest warrants by providing them with information on the matching activities of other state Food Stamp programs and their results, on accessing available arrest warrant databases such as NCIC.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  8. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) reviewed state matching procedures to determine if further guidance or clarification from FNS would assist state efforts to conduct fleeing felon matches. FNS worked with USDA's Office of General Counsel (OGC) to determine whether the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) allows Food Stamps Offices to share client information with law enforcement agents (versus allowing law enforcement agents to share information on felons with Food Stamp Offices, which is clearly permitted under PRWORA). OGC did not report any response to this action.

    Recommendation: To oversee and better implement these provisions in the Food Stamp program, the Secretary of Agriculture should monitor states' computerized matching efforts to identify fugitive felons and their results.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  9. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) consulted with USDA's Office of General Counsel (OGC) to develop more comprehensive guidelines to help states comply more effectively with the fugitive felon provisions. FNS also tested new procedures in Delaware to improve implementation of the fugitive felon provisions. FNS also consulted with OGC to determine whether the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) allows Food Stamps offices to share client information with law enforcement agents (versus allowing law enforcement agents to share information on felons with Food Stamp Offices, which is clearly permitted under PRWORA). OGC did not report any response to this action.

    Recommendation: To oversee and better implement these provisions in the Food Stamp program, the Secretary of Agriculture should determine what criteria state Food Stamp programs are using to remove recipients wanted for felonies, or probation or parole violations from the Food Stamp rolls, and, if these criteria differ across states, provide Food Stamp program with clean guidance on the circumstances under which benefits to fugitive felons should be terminated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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