IMAGE: CHAD CROWE
Social Security checks. These former workers are being kicked off the rolls and deprived of their retirement and disability benefits for one simple reason: They are fugitives from justice.
Even though they live at known addresses and deposit their money in established banks, these retired lawbreakers are technically "fugitive felons."
The Fugitive Felon Project, written into the 1996 welfare-reform law, allowed the Social Security Administration to comb the rolls of federal aid recipients for suspects wanted on outstanding felony warrants. Nationwide, about 78,000 people have been kicked off Supplemental Security Income, the federal safety net for about 7 million sick and disabled Americans. Last year, almost 800 people wanted on Oregon warrants stopped receiving checks.
Now the government is training its sights on the 48 million retirees and disabled workers who depend on Social Security.
Legal advocates say the jilted beneficiaries are seldom actual fugitives. Rather, they're felons who have ignored-or forgotten-antique warrants, often for crimes so minor that police have made little effort to make arrests. The fleeing felons, they say, are typically elderly, sick or disabled-only 20 percent of the warrants arise from violent or drug-related crimes.
John Connors, the local director for Metropolitan Public Defender, has had clients who stand to lose their housing and access to medicine because of 15-year-old warrants.
Oregon residents can regain their benefits by showing up in court. But suspects living out of state often have trouble traveling here. Likewise, public defenders in Los Angeles have fielded desperate calls from Oregonians who face California criminal charges.
Connors' office has handled more than a dozen fugitive-felon cases in the last year. He says the crackdown will push many sick and elderly patients on already overtaxed local health services.
"Where else are they going to go?" he says.
In some cases, it may be hard to gin up much sympathy for the fugitive felons. While some individual stories paint a picture of hapless victims caught in a system bent on delivering harsh punishment for minor, long-forgotten crimes, all of the suspects are wanted for felony offenses-including crimes as serious as rape and murder.
Talking on the phone from his home in Valdosta, Ga., Frank Summers sounds more like an old man than a 40-year-old father. Summers rambled across America for much of the 1980s and ended up in Portland, where, his attorney says, he was eventually indicted without his knowledge for manufacturing and delivery of a controlled substance.
Twenty years later, with asthma and emphysema that keep him hooked to an oxygen machine and prevented him from working, Summers received a letter revoking his $371 monthly check, his only income other than food stamps. It took four months to persuade the Multnomah County District Attorney's office to drop the charges on condition that Summers never return to Oregon.
"It was real rough," he says. "I had to go to my pastor and borrow money. If I had known about it, I would have tried to take care of it."
But the dragnet does have its defenders. David Yandell, an information manager with the Oregon State Police, says it's an important tool for determining whether people deserve federal checks.
"It's a great program," he says. "It's in the best interest of the legitimate, tax-paying public that we do what we can to try to make that determination."