A bill allowing Florida prison officials to recruit more young correctional officers is continuing to move in both chambers of the Florida Legislature.
After speaking with Prison Chief Julie Jones, Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) is sponsoring Senate bill 854 authorizing the Florida Department of Corrections to start hiring correctional officers at age 18, instead of 19.
“The goal here really is us to begin to recruit earlier, and one of the challenges the Secretary has identified is when she goes to all these recruitment fairs, and talks in schools, that she’d like to introduce people to the profession of being a Corrections officer,” he said. “One of the challenges she has is she says, ‘well, you can’t start until you’re 19.’ The ability to be able to get training directly out of high school to begin to integrate into the Corrections officer system will really allow a much larger pool of candidates to look at this a long term profession.”
The measure also includes a condition that any correctional officer under the age of 19 is not allowed to supervise inmates.
“Today, the simple standard is 19,” he added. “At 19, you can begin to supervise inmates. I personally had an issue with very young individuals being able to directly supervise. So, this creates a new category of a Corrections specialist that simply allows them to go through the initial training, and begin to work in the facility, but not directly supervise inmates. I think it’s a good compromise. But, it really does allow every person that’s in this state now that is of 18-years-old to really look at this as a new profession.”
Still, Ricky Dixon says the 18-year-old would still be able to perform other duties. He’s the Deputy Secretary of Institutions for the Florida Department of Corrections.
“They would not supervise inmates is the key point,” said Dixon. “They would not be permitted to supervise inmates, until they turned 19. They would assist with search processes and control room type environments alongside a mentor, teaching them those duties and not be alone.”
Jared Torres is the legislative affairs director at the Florida Department of Corrections. He says this bill is not only an agency priority, it came highly recommended by an independent auditor of the state’s prison system.
“The Association of State Correctional Administrators—so ASCA—it’s a national association for all state Secretaries for each of their corrections…ASCA put in their report specifically that states should look at policies like this to try and help recruit,” said Torres. “As you know, in Florida, unfortunately, we have critical staffing levels in our facilities, and we’re trying to do everything we can to bring in some new blood and beef up staffing.”
Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) likes the bill. He calls it a “reasonable plan.”
“If you can carry a gun and serve in the U.S. military and protect us from all enemies, certainly you’re mature enough to be considered by the Department of Corrections, and particularly this almost creates an internship where they can be learning the culture before they’re actually put into situations that are volatile and difficult as direct supervision,” said Baxley.
Still, over in the Florida House, not everyone is completely sold on the idea.
While she voted for the bill (House Bill 365) in its first House committee, Rep. Jennifer Sullivan (R-Mount Dora) says she’s unsure she’ll vote for it when it gets to the floor.
In the past, state prison officials have said they are seeing most of their turnover in their younger employees—which has Sullivan worried lowering the age will make that worse.
“I know because it’s been shared with me that there’s a hard time keeping correctional officers because they come, the state trains them, the state doesn’t pay as high, and then they go work for a county,” said Sullivan. “So, my fear is if we are now creating a recruiting process for recruiting more young individuals that the turnover is going to become even greater, that we’re going to be investing our dollars training them and then they’re going to be leaving to go to other places…So, for those reasons, I have great hesitation.”
And, while he too shares those concerns, Rep. David Richardson (D-Miami) says he also sees the benefits of the measure.
“We do need to recruit more people, and I see a benefit of us being able to go into high schools and talk to students, before they have a break after they graduate,” he said. “So, if we’re waiting until they turn 19-years-old, most students are graduating when they’re 17 or 18-years-old. And, they may have six months or nine months before they turn 19. So, in that interim time, they’ve gone and found another job, and they’re no longer interested in a career with the Florida Department of Corrections. So, I think this will help our recruitment.”
The House measure has already unanimously passed all its committees, and is waiting to be taken up by the full chamber. Its Senate companion bill has passed two committees and has one more to go before a floor vote.
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