Florida Welfare Cheats Could Face 30 Years in Prison

Monday, 10 Feb 2014 02:19 PM

By Melanie Batley

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Florida welfare cheats could end up behind bars for as long as 30 years if a bill to crack down on benefit fraud gets through the Legislature.

The proposals set out harsh sentencing guidelines for offenders based on the scale of public assistance abuse, and has the backing of both Democrats and Republicans, according to Florida Watchdog.

"Individuals who defraud our system and our taxpayers must be held accountable for their actions," GOP state Rep. Jimmie Smith, the bill's sponsor, said in a statement.

"This bill will ensure that the penalty fits the crime."

Specifically, those found to have fraudulently claimed more than $100,000 in Medicaid, food stamps or other taxpayer-funded cash assistance programs could face 30 years in prison, and people who wrongfully claim $20,000 could get sentenced to 15 years.

Fraudulently obtaining a total of just $200 within a 12-month period is already a third-degree felony in Florida, punishable by up to five years in prison, according to Florida Watchdog.

Meanwhile, the bill also calls for paying cash rewards to anyone offering new information about benefits abuses, paying tipsters up to 10 percent of the recovered money.

The proposals, however, are attracting some criticism. One policy analyst said that the costs of incarceration could outweigh the benefits, while Florida's ACLU warns the plans could have negative social effects.

"The 'turn on your neighbor' part of the bill fosters a culture of suspicion and paranoia that will make Floridians treat each other with mistrust and suspicion, and could even lead to a new kind of fraud altogether where people report people out of animus or the hope of scoring reward money," Baylor Johnson, spokesperson for the ACLU of Florida, told Watchdog, adding the legislation could also perpetuate stereotypes.

The proposed reforms coincide with an expansion of federal social entitlements since 2008, including Florida's planned Medicaid expansion under Obamacare by GOP Gov. Rick Scott

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