Republican Talking Point Omits Key Details About Stimulus Payments to Inmates

Some congressional Democrats voted for COVID-19 relief bills that resulted in stimulus checks being sent to inmates — but so did some congressional Republicans.

Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was one of the prisoners eligible for a $1,400 stimulus check – but he didn’t get to keep it, because a federal court ruled that the payment could be seized to pay Tsarnaev’s criminal fines and for restitution to his victims.

But those two facts – that Republicans voted for previous stimulus checks and Tsarnaev didn’t keep his check – were omitted from Republican attacks on a number of Democrats who voted for the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

That law – like two previous COVID-19 relief bills that were enacted in 2020 with overwhelming bipartisan support – did not block inmates from receiving economic impact payments intended to help individuals and families during the pandemic.

For example, in Florida, a TV ad from Sen. Marco Rubio’s reelection campaign says that Rep. Val Demings, his Democratic challenger, “joined [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi to give a billion [dollars] in stimulus checks to convicted criminals and illegal immigrants.”

Similarly, a Senate Leadership Fund ad attacking Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia says, “Warnock’s at the center of even more liberal spending that allowed COVID relief checks to go to convicted criminals in prison like the Boston Marathon bomber, a Michigan sex abuser, and thousands of murderers and drug dealers.”

Other Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, have recently made similar claims. 

But the GOP talking point is not the whole story about the payments.

Payments to Inmates

It’s true that qualifying inmates were eligible to receive stimulus payments made available by the American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law in March 2021 without any support from Republicans. Demings voted for the bill in the House, and Warnock voted for it in the Senate.

We have written about this subject before, including the misleading claim that the American Rescue Plan sent checks to “illegal immigrants.”

Stimulus payments were not sent to the more than 10 million immigrants estimated to be living in the U.S. illegally, as the claim suggested. Instead, some Republicans raised concerns that a specific subset of those immigrants — those who overstayed a work visa and had a Social Security number — might get checks. Immigration experts estimate that the majority of people living in the U.S. illegally did not come on a visa, and most of those who did overstayed a tourist visa.

The American Rescue Plan included stimulus payments of up to $1,400 for single tax filers earning less than $75,000 and checks worth up to $2,800 for married couples filing together who made less than $150,000. Tax filers could get an additional $1,400 for each of their dependents. 

To receive the payments, individuals had to meet all of the eligibility requirements and had to have filed a 2019 or 2020 federal tax return, according to the IRS. 

Prior to the bill becoming law, three Republican senators proposed an amendment that would have denied the payments to incarcerated people, but it was defeated by the entire Democratic caucus in a 49-50 vote along party lines. 

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the upper chamber, argued in a speech on the Senate floor that adopting the amendment would harm the family members of inmates who needed the money. 

“Given the stark racial disparities in our criminal justice system, this would cause the most harm to Black and Brown families and communities already harmed by mass incarceration,” he said. “Children should not be forced to go hungry because a parent is incarcerated. Relief payments would allow families to replace lost income and pay rent and put food on the table.”

While many Republicans have criticized Democrats for opposing the amendment, most GOP members of Congress, including Rubio and McCarthy, previously supported COVID-19 relief bills in 2020 —  the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and the Consolidated Appropriations Act — that also did not bar inmates from receiving stimulus payments. Those bills authorized payments to individuals of up to $1,200 and $600, respectively.

It was not until over a month after then-President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act into law in March 2020 that the IRS issued guidance saying that payments should not go to inmates, and that any who had received money should return it.

But that IRS stipulation was challenged in a class-action lawsuit, and a federal district judge ruled in October 2020 that eligible inmates were entitled to the payments because the bill that became law did not include language excluding those individuals.

That is an important detail because at that point many Republicans in Congress knew that this was an issue. Yet Senate Republicans, after initially proposing a ban on checks to inmates in July 2020, opted not to include language disqualifying incarcerated people from receiving the stimulus payments of up to $600 that were in the appropriations bill that Trump signed in December 2020.

Boston Marathon Bomber

As the Senate Leadership Fund ad attacking Warnock says, one of the individuals who received a stimulus payment via the American Rescue Plan was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber. 

Tsarnaev is being detained in a federal prison in Colorado, after being sentenced to death in 2015 for the April 2013 bombing carried out by him and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died after a shootout with police. Three people were killed in the bombing and hundreds more were injured.

Court filings indicate that a $1,400 economic impact payment was deposited into his inmate account in June 2021. But he did not get to keep it, as the Republican attacks suggest.

Federal prosecutors petitioned a U.S. District Court in Massachusetts to have the federal Bureau of Prisons turn over the money that had been deposited into his account, so it could be used to pay criminal fines levied against Tsarnaev and make payments to his victims. In January, the federal court ruled that the funds could be seized for that purpose.

Larry Nassar, the “Michigan sex abuser” referenced in the SLF ad, is another federal inmate who had his stimulus payments garnished by a U.S. District Court in Michigan for victim restitution. The former sports physician received the equivalent of a life sentence in prison after being convicted in 2017 and 2018 on federal and state charges related to child pornography and sexual assault of underage female gymnasts.

The SLF ad’s mention of Nassar is notable because, according to court documents, he received a $1,400 payment from Biden’s American Rescue Plan in March 2021, as well as a $600 payment in January 2021 from the Consolidated Appropriations Act backed by Trump and other Republicans. That illustrates the point that inmates were sent money because of COVID-19 relief laws supported by Democrats and Republicans. 

In early July, the IRS sent a letter to Republican Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska answering several questions he asked in a February letter to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig about the payments. The letter Bacon received indicated that at the time the IRS had made 1.1 million COVID-19 stimulus payments totaling about $1.3 billion to federal and state inmates under Trump and Biden.

Another IRS response to the National Republican Senatorial Committee in February indicated that, as of early January, over $924 million in stimulus payments were made to inmates under the American Rescue Plan, specifically.

Overall, between April 2020 and December 2021, the IRS sent almost $838 billion in economic impact payments to eligible U.S. residents, according to a June report from the Government Accountability Office.

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