fraud should not be criminalized: poverty law expert
Sudbury - The coroners inquest into the death of Kimberly Ann Rogers heard Monday from Bruce Porter, an expert in poverty law and Employment Insurance (EI).
Porter decried the "criminalization of so-called welfare fraud," and suggested most such fraud could be dealt with administratively, as is usually done in cases of EI fraud, without invoking the criminal justice system.
Rogers, 40, died of an overdose of anti-depressants in her apartment in August 2001 during a heat wave. At the time of her death, she was eight months pregnant and under house arrest for welfare fraud.
Last month, the inquest heard testimony from Harold Duff, the local administrator of Ontario Works, who said fraud under $5,000 is dealt with administratively, through repayments, while fraud of more than $5,000 is referred to the police.
Porter said his own research into welfare fraud, from the Government of Ontarios Web site, and data from the Centre for Justice Statistics (CJS), leads him to believe that Ontario has "a relatively high number of convictions" for fraud of all types over $5,000, including welfare fraud, and that "a relatively high number of women" are convicted.
He added that men are more likely to receive prison sentences for fraud, while women are more likely to receive conditional sentences such as house arrest.
The inquest heard that 557 people in Ontario were convicted of welfare fraud in 1999-2000, and 430 people in 2000-2001, according to the governments Web site.
Porter testified that data from the CJS showed 837 total convictions in the province for all types of fraud over $5,000, including 354 women in 1999-2000, and 812 convictions including 328 women in 2000-2001.
Porter cautioned the CJS numbers included non-welfare-related fraud, but said there is a "fair bit of consistency year to year," and claimed such data is "consistent with the hypothesis that Ontario prosecutes fraud for welfare more frequently than other provinces."
Porter pointed out that EI fraud is "rarely ever prosecuted," and is usually punished through fines or repayments. He added that EI concentrates most of its efforts on fraud prevention and sometimes even waives fines and penalties based on an individuals personal circumstances.
The provincial government, he argued, does not "have to think of welfare fraud as something that has to criminally prosecuted Ontario is criminalizing activities that dont have to be criminalized."
Under a grueling cross-examination by Crown Attorney Al OMarra and the City of Greater Sudburys Martin James, however, Porters data looked less authoritative at the end of the session.
OMarra pointed to a "hybrid" category in Porters figures of "fraud over and under $5,000" that included 761 convictions in 1999-2000, meaning welfare fraud in that period could have been as great as 557 convictions out of 837, or as few as 557 out of 1,598.
James asked Porter to read further from the governments Web site, which revealed that welfare fraud convictions have dropped considerably in recent years, from 1,123 in 1997-98 to 747 convictions in 1999-2000.
The Web site document also claimed the primary reason for the termination of welfare benefits in the province is incarceration, and suggested the total dollar amount of unearned benefits dropped from $60 million in 1998-99, to $46.3 million in 1999-2000.
Several lawyers representing anti-poverty groups argued against the inclusion into evidence of the Web site printout because the numbers it provides might be misleading, and the lawyers would not have an opportunity to cross-examine its authors.
James countered that Porter had already quoted numbers from the Web site, making it fair game for inclusion.
The coroner, Dr. David Eden, ruled the document is admissible, and then adjourned for the day.