New Jersey spent millions of dollars to provide unemployment benefits, Medicaid coverage and food assistance to people who didn’t qualify for that government help because they were in prison at the time. That’s the key finding in a blistering new audit released this morning by the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC).

According to the report, some state agencies administering a series of public assistance programs failed to review county inmate data, and in some cases state prison data, before awarding government help.

One agency admits it relied on a review of New Jersey newspapers to determine if any of its thousands of program participants had been arrested or convicted of a crime.

“These are vitally important social programs,” says State Comptroller Matthew Boxer. “Our audit identifies simple but critical steps that will help ensure that tax dollars spent on these programs are reserved for those who actually qualify for benefits.”

The audit covered a 22-month period from July 2009 to April 2011. It identifies more than $23 million in benefit payments made to or on behalf of incarcerated individuals who did not appear to be entitled to such payments.

$10M in Unemployment Benefits for Prisoners

More than $10 million of the benefit payments identified by the audit derived from unemployment insurance benefits paid out to more than 7,600 prison inmates. State law says only people who are “able to work” and “available for work” are eligible for those benefits.

The state departments responsible for administering each of these programs have committed to recovering misspent funds and improving oversight measures so that going forward all inmate data is cross-checked to verify participant eligibility.