People who willfully commit fraud to get unemployment benefits, including those who try to collect checks while imprisoned, could soon be facing tougher penalties.

The state's House of Representatives on Tuesday unanimously approved legislation proposed by Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover, to increase fines and make those fraudulent claimants wait longer for future benefits.

The legislation also removes the current four-year statute of limitations on fraud and allows the state to collect penalties through liens, civil action or "any other means available by law" for up to 12 years after the fraud occurred, Grove said.

He said the legislation is one of myriad efforts to address "small leaks" in the state's unemployment compensation system "so it can continue to provide a safety net for individuals who genuinely are eligible for benefits."

Citing the U.S. Department of Labor's Benefit Accuracy Measurement program, Grove said Pennsylvania had an unemployment fraud rate of 5.22 percent between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012; that rate was nearly double the national average and cost the state more than $158 million in fraudulent payments for that period.

About $18 million of that money went to about 3,000 prisoners statewide, he said. It's illegal to collect unemployment while incarcerated.

"To receive unemployment, you have to be available for work," he said. "Obviously, if you're in prison, you're not available for work."

Grove didn't have data reflecting the number of York County Prison inmates trying to collect unemployment, and neither did Warden Mary Sabol.

Adds to penalty: Proposed in January, Grove's bill would impose an additional 52-week penalty for claimants who illegally apply for benefits while incarcerated. [mfr: on top of what?: ]The penalty would be imposed if, at some point in the future, the person becomes eligible for unemployment benefits.

If it becomes law, fines would increase from a range of $100 to $1,000 to a range of $500 to $1,500 for anyone who knowingly lies to get unemployment benefits. The minimum number of penalty weeks would increase, from two to 10 weeks.

- Reach Christina Kauffman at