Hiring 4,000 prison guards is a start, not an end

FL corrections patch

This could be the start of something big. In fact, it has to be.

Last week, Julie Jones, secretary of the state’s Department of Corrections, announced an initiative to recruit 4,000 corrections officers by July 2017. This move is crucial to plugging the staffing gaps that have drained resources, stretched the relatively meager ranks of prison guards and, no doubt, contributed to a culture that tolerated — if not encouraged — their vindictive torture and violence.

As important, Ms. Jones has mandated that new recruits get 120 hours of training before being allowed into any prison compound. They will then continue on to the corrections officers academy. Upon successful completion, the new hires will receive certification.

This is significant. Corrections officers have one of the toughest, most dangerous jobs in state government. However, in too many instances in recent years, new recruits could end up patrolling felons the day after they were hired — under the supervision of an experienced officer. And if the experienced officer was the type to resort to excessive force as many have been accused of meting out against prisoners, then the newbie was already learning the wrong lessons.

About one-third of the new hires will fill the 1,300 open positions that have become a drain on the department’s effectiveness.

Those openings forced the department to pay $18.2 million in overtime in 2014-15, money that can be much better spent to pay the salaries of new, needed corrections officers. By the way, what Florida pays its prison guards is abominable. The average salary is $31,951, among the lowest in comparable state prison systems. Officers with experience don’t make that much more.

And, for about a decade, penny-pinching lawmakers have lacked any foresight, denying corrections officers a raise. That’s right, elected officials themselves have played an outsize role in creating the costly cycle that has led to high turnover — at any given time, seven in 10 officers have been at work in the prisons for only two years — and expensive overtime. The misbegotten policy squanders both human capital and cash. Not smart.

While gradually adding 4,000 corrections officers should bring a measure of stability, there are long-term challenges that both DOC and the Legislature should address.

Florida can work harder to stem the flow of some offenders into its prisons, particularly for nonviolent crimes. Already, there’s been bipartisan action on this front. This year, lawmakers passed and Gov. Rick Scott signed into law the repeal of “10-20-Life,” a rigid mandate that removed sentencing discretion from judges’ hands. Both hardcore offenders and younger ones who might have deserved a second chance, essentially, were treated the same way. And a new law will go a long way toward diverting many mentally ill offenders from prison, the worst place possible for them, and into treatment.

Lawmakers should continue to consider sentencing reforms — and rehabilitation and vocational initiatives — that reduce both the prison population and ex-felons’ recidivism. One good place to start? Get rid of the restrictions that prevent ex-felons from entering certain vocations.

Additional corrections officers in state prisons is a necessity right now; but fewer prisoners in state prisons should be the ultimate goal.