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Elderly and disabled social security recipients with outstanding felony warrants can no longer be automatically denied their benefits, thanks to a new ruling by a federal appeals court with jurisdiction over New York, Connecticut and Vermont. The December 6 ruling found that a Social Security Administration (SSA) policy that slashed benefits for as many as 100,000 recipients violates the Social Security Act. Under the Act’s 1996 amendment, which was intended to block payments to criminals on the run, benefits may be suspended only if there is evidence that the recipient is knowingly fleeing prosecution. According to Jennifer Parish, director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center, many of those whom the SSA deems “fugitives” were not even aware of the warrants against them. Felipe Oteze Fowlkes, for instance, whose case prompted the repeal, said he learned he was considered a “fleeing felon” on the same day he lost his benefits. Moreover, Parish explained, most warrants are for low-level crimes—in Fowlkes’ case, petty larceny and a voter registration offense. “These are crimes that are low enough on the totem pole and old enough that the police aren’t interested in them,” Parish said. The SSA has not yet announced whether it will appeal the decision. If not, it will be forced to comply with the ruling in the Second Circuit states. If the case is appealed, a loss for the feds could extend the ruling nationwide. (M. Herbert) [12/19/05]

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