18-year-olds will soon be able to become correctional officers in Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CAPITOL NEWS SERVICE) - Florida prisons are in the middle of a multi-year staffing crisis and morale is low over forced overtime to cover shifts. But the Governor has signed a bill to allow 18-year-olds to become correctional officers.

Correctional officer vacancies run as high as 30 percent in some Florida prisons. (Pixabay)

Correctional officer vacancies run as high as 30 percent in some prisons. There were 2,000 vacancies at the beginning of 2019.

New numbers provided Wednesday show there are now 2,380 vacant positions; a 19 percent increase in just six months.

The remaining 10,000 officers are being ordered to work 12- and 16-hour shifts six or seven days a week. Correctional officers start at just over $33,000 a year and there hasn’t been a raise in two years.

To increase the applicant pool, Representative Spencer Roach sponsored legislation to lower the minimum age to become a CO from 19 to 18.

“What we are seeing is that those folks who are 18 years old and may have an interest in working for the department, they don’t want to wait that extra year to start working, so they are going into the military, which they can do at 18,” said Roach.

Twenty-year corrections veteran Tim Butler, fired in part for blowing the whistle on wrongdoing, called the lower age a recipe for disaster.

“Eighteen years old you haven’t had enough time to think,” said Butler. "You haven’t had enough time to find out what’s going on with these guys. These guys here manipulate them quick.”

The Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represents corrections officers, reluctantly agreed to hire 18-year-olds.

”I guess we are at the point where we have no other choice but to put them into the prison,” said Jim Baiardi with the PBA.

But even the union says it's just a stopgap measure.

“The problem is that the pay isn’t good and currently they are forcing correctional officers to work on their days off because they are so short,” said Baiardi.

Officers who refuse to work overtime face suspensions, making the staffing situation even harder on those who can’t afford to leave. Lawmakers hope there will be less of a need for overtime when the new law takes effect on July 1.