Performance measures and data have always mattered to Florida’s governor, a former hospital chain CEO who loves a good spreadsheet. The metrics coming recently from Florida’s Department of Corrections must have leapt off of his screen, because the small-government, tax-cutting conservative at long last is proposing adding $38 million to the state’s $2.5 billion corrections budget to pay for guards’ raises.
Credit Corrections Secretary Julie Jones with diplomatically and persistently making the case for these long-needed increases.
Credit also audits by the National Institute of Corrections, which in 2015 found “staffing emergencies” leading to dangerous and unsafe working conditions on a persistent basis.
Starting salaries for Florida’s corrections officers are under $31,000, significantly less than their peers in similar states and county jails, the audit noted.
“Half of the department’s correctional officers have less than 3.1 years of work experience,” the audit found. At five out of 10 of the state’s largest prisons, half the staff had less than two years of experience.
Jones has said she cannot fill such high-risk, high-stress jobs at such low pay, leaving her with a 10 percent vacancy rate, excess overtime and little time for training.
How bad did it have to get to attract the governor’s attention? Nearly 1 in 3 correctional officers quit their jobs on an annual basis as of 2015-16, state figures show. Just four years earlier, guards had a 17.5 percent annual turnover rate.
Meanwhile, a recent audit of mental health services at the prisons found “grave concerns” about the administration of medication and other services to mentally ill inmates.
And in January, a report from The Miami Herald found that use-of-force incidents in the prisons had reached an eight-year high in 2015-16.
It’s understood that when Gov. Rick Scott first came into office, the state was in the throes of a great recession, and facing a large budget deficit. The Department of Corrections, nobody’s favorite cause, took an extreme hit of nearly a half-billion dollars. Horrific accounts of inmate-on-inmate and guard-on-inmate violence and murders have followed.
So what’s Scott’s fix? His budget proposal includes another $4.9 million for hiring bonuses for high-vacancy corrections jobs, $2.5 million extra for correctional officers working in mental health settings, $3 million for training, $35 million for facility maintenance and repairs and $4.2 million for urgently needed vehicles. It includes another $25 million for juvenile justice needs. That’s a start, but more must be done.
The agency, Florida’s largest, imprisons almost 100,000 inmates at a time, and supervises another 140,000 on parole or otherwise in the community. They do this with 24,000 positions.
The problems with Florida’s criminal justice system are immense, but strong leadership from Jones, combined, finally, with responsiveness from Scott and the Florida Legislature, offers a glimmer of hope for repairs to a truly broken, cruel, neglected system.
We’ve seen what happens to the performance measures when drastic cuts are made. Let’s see what happens when funding is restored.
At five out of 10 of the state’s largest prisons, half the staff had less than two years of experience.