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Pay for Georgia’s prison guards helps fuel high turnover

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA (MCT) — Turnover in Georgia’s adult and juvenile justice systems, which pay their correctional officers far less than what their peers receive in other Southeastern states, required training for nearly 3,000 replacements in the most recent fiscal year at a cost to taxpayers of about $30 million.

But a state audit found that increasing compensation to boost the level of experience for workers filling critical and stressful positions inside the state’s lockups may not offset those costs.

Pay is only one factor for the high turnover rates in the state’s Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice — long shifts and dangerous conditions are others — according to the the audit sought by the state Senate Appropriations Committee.

“I’m concerned about the turnover and I’m concerned about the low pay,” Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles said. “It’s one of those type things that if we don’t address it aggressively it’s going to continue.”

Copies of the report from the state Department of Audits and Accounts, weighing salaries and personnel costs for correctional officers, probation officers and parole officers, were sent to both House and Senate members, as well as the agencies.

“The fact of the pay (is low) is something we have known for a while. The extent of the problem we did not know,” said Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, chairman of the public safety subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. “It’s serious. The extent of the problem is now quantifiable, and now we have to deal with it, to find the resources, to decide when and over what period of time we’ll deal with it.”

The Legislature may not deal with it this year, though, Powell said, because budget writers have to fulfill promises made in the past few years to other law enforcement agencies that saw their funding suffer during the recession.

The audit found:

— A turnover rate of 31 percent for correctional officers in the state Department of Corrections between July 1, 2012, and June 30, with the cost for replacing the more than 2,100 who left put at $19.3 million.

— Within the Department of Juvenile Justice, the turnover rate rate that year was 57 percent. The cost for training 787 replacements was $9.7 million.

— The highest turnover rate of any facility was 93 percent at the Atlanta Youth Development Campus, one of six long-term juvenile facilities.

— Seven regional youth detention centers, which are akin to adult jails, had turnover rates that topped 70 percent.

— Telfair State Prison near Helena had the highest turnover rate in the adult system, at 49 percent.

“High turnover rates result in officers with fewer years of experience and can create staffing shortages that require current employees to work beyond their schedule shifts,” which adds to their work-related stress, the report said.

Auditors wrote that correctional officers left for a number of reasons, but pay was one of the key reasons.

The starting pay for officers in the Georgia Department of Corrections, $24,322, lags behind each of the state’s bordering neighbors, except for South Carolina ($24,096). In North Carolina and Alabama, the pay starts at $28,826 and $28,516, respectively.

The state also has trouble competing with some local governments. In Gwinnett County, for example, pay for a correctional officer starts at $37,000.

Sergeants in the state’s juvenile justice system, at $26,672, make less than a sergeant working in one of the state’s adult prisons ($29,400).

“We’d like to have experienced people, and we’re going to do our best to keep people,” said Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, who is chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, which oversees the state’s law enforcement agencies.

“We understand the need to be competitive, but at the same time there are so many constraints on us,” Carter said. “It makes it very difficult (to increase pay) with escalating health care costs.”

The state does pay better than the $23,192 officers receive in Georgia’s three private adult prisons. Privately operated jails for juveniles in Cordele and Milan pay even less than that: $21,842.

But the audit said that while “raising new corrections officers’ starting salaries would likely decrease turnover rates,” the savings in training costs would probably not “offset the costs of even a relatively small increase.”

Niles, the commissioner for the Department of Juvenile Justice, said that “experience is very important.”

“When you lose somebody who’s been with you between two and five years in service, you don’t just lose the salary. You lose the experience,” Niles said. “That experience is often more valuable than the pay itself.”