BOISE, Idaho (AP) – Hundreds of thousands of dollars in coronavirus relief payments have been sent to people behind bars in the United States, and now the IRS is asking state officials to help recover the money the federal tax office says was wrongly sent .
Legislation authorizing payments during the pandemic does not specifically exclude prisons or detainees, and the IRS has declined to say exactly what legal authority it has to get the money back. On its website, it refers to the unrelated Social Security Act, which prohibits people who are incarcerated from receiving certain types of old-age and survivors’ benefits.
“I can’t give you the legal basis. All I can tell you is that this is the language the Treasury and we have used, “said IRS spokesman Eric Smith. “It’s just the same list as in the Social Security Act.”
Tax attorney Kelly Erb, who wrote about the problem on her website, says there is no legal basis for requesting the checks back.
“I think it’s really unfair to the IRS,” Erb said Tuesday. “It’s not a rule just because the IRS puts it on the website. In fact, the IRS says things on its website are not a legal authority. So there’s no real rule – it’s just guidance – and that guidance can change at any time . ”
After Congress passed the $ 2.2 trillion coronavirus rescue package in March, in most cases checks were automatically sent up to $ 1,200 to people who filed income tax returns for 2018 or 2019, including some who are detained. A few weeks later, the IRS directed state correction agencies to intercept and return payments to prisoners.
The IRS does not yet have figures on how many payments went to prisoners, Smith said. But initial data from some states suggests the numbers are huge: only the Kansas Department of Correction intercepted more than $ 200,000 in checks in early June. Idaho and Montana together had seized more than $ 90,000.
Washington State, meanwhile, had only intercepted about $ 23,000 in early June. Some states, such as Nevada, have refused to release the figures, citing an IRS confidentiality request.
While the IRS says checks sent to prisoners should also be returned, the sheer number of prisons and detention centers in the U.S. makes it difficult to tell if many are following those instructions.
The IRS itself seems to have decided to withdraw payments approved by Congress, said Wanda Bertram, a spokeswoman for the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank that focuses on the damage of mass incarceration. She says prison officials are used to intercepting tax documents to check for possible scams and getting them to follow up on this request.
“Looks like the IRS is just making this up,” said Bertram.
Detainees and their families need the money, she said, mainly because prisons try to reduce the spread of the virus by setting conditions or releasing thousands of prisoners who then try to get back on their feet.
Lockdowns can increase costs for prisoners because they often receive inferior food or fewer meals and must be replenished by purchasing food from prison commissioners. Family and friends on the outside often cover those costs, and many have lost their jobs during the economic downturn, Bertram said.
“Lovers right now are also under pressure because of the pandemic and their unemployment, so if you send someone a stimulus check, the person in prison isn’t the only one who will benefit,” said Bertram.
Intercepting relief controls can also have a disproportionate impact on black and Latin American prisoners, who are being held in custody faster than white Americans. According to the United States Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, black people are being captured with roughly double the population of Latin America and more than five times the number of whites as last year.
National prison officials are attempting to intercept controls with mixed results. Officials in Vermont, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and California estimate they had intercepted less than a dozen checks each in early June. Oregon prison officials had seized 25 payments, 21 of which to the tax office and four others to family members or other joint tax administrators.
Kaitlin Felsted, a spokeswoman for the Utah prison system, said the state had intercepted 28 checks so far, but noted that the money sent to a prisoner’s home address would not be touched by prison officials.
Some states, such as Alaska and Wyoming, do not track the amount of payments they intercept.
It is not clear whether detainees can appeal, said Erb, the tax attorney.
Those released before the end of the year and not given a relief check may try to claim the missing money as a credit on their 2021 tax returns, but it’s not clear whether the IRS will honor such claims, Erb said. Other prisoners may be out of luck.
“I think someone should file a lawsuit, and you should have the resources to do it,” she said. “I don’t know if most people can do anything but complain and see if they can draw attention. You must have someone who will stand up and advocate for that segment of the population. ‘
Contributions include Associated Press journalists Amy Beth Hanson Jonathan Mattise, Andrew Selsky, Emily Wagster Pettus, Rachel La Corte, Michelle L. Price, Mark Scolforo, Don Thompson, John Hanna, Mead Gruver, Jacques Billeaud, Lindsay Whitehurst, Mark Thiessen and Wilson Ring.
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