HD39 - Correctional Officer Issues

Executive Summary:
House Joint Resolution 113 grew out of a 1995 study conducted by the Virginia State Crime Commission to look at the Staffing Needs of Virginia's Prisons. In that report, a number of issues surfaced that were not specific to staffing needs, but it was felt, were important enough to be addressed separately. These issues were:

• A study needed to be conducted on the retirement benefits of correctional and probation and parole officers. In addition, other benefits were to be reviewed in an effort to increase recruitment and retention within the Department of Corrections.

• The Crime Commission requested that the Department of Corrections develop a differential pay system to increase compensation for officers assigned to maximum security facilities.

• The Crime Commission recommended that the Department of Corrections develop and adopt personnel policies which required drug screening of all applicants for DOC employment and implemented random drug screens for employees having contact with inmates, or are in sensitive positions.

These three items later became the essence of 1996 House Joint Resolution No. 113, and are the basic sections of this study.

Differential Pay System

There was a concern that there were significant numbers of correctional personnel transferring from higher level of custody institutions to lower level institutions and that this was creating instability within the DOC workforce. A study of all lateral transfers for the period January 1, 1993 and December 31, 1995 was conducted to determine if this premise was true. Of the 590 transfers for all reasons during this time period, only about 90 transfers could be attributed to lower custody level institutions. This number represents something less than 1.5% of the Department of Corrections total workforce.

Recommendation: A pay differential system for correctional officers working at closer custody facilities should not be implemented at this time. The Department of Corrections should implement a differential pay system based on education and continue to explore other differential systems, such as, shift differential, to aid in the recruitment and retention effort.

Drug Testing Policy for Employees and Applicants.

The Virginia State Crime Commission, in 1996 House Document No. 26, recommended that the Department of Corrections develop and implement a drug testing policy for all applicants for DOC employment and a random drug screening policy for all existing DOC employees who have direct contact with inmates or are in sensitive positions. The Department has developed such a policy. (*1) It is subject to final revisions by the Attorney General's Office. The annual cost for this program is estimated to be $260,000.

Recommendation: The Department of Corrections should implement the Applicant/Employee Drug Testing Policy as soon as is practical.

Retirement/Benefits for Correctional and Probation/Parole Officers.

This section was divided into two areas, correctional officers, and probation/parole officers. The correctional officers concerns centered around basic issues such as pay and safety/staffing. Correctional officer salaries are below the median when compared to adjoining states and are at the bottom when compared to local and regional jails. Since one of the prime concerns of this study was to stem the loss of trained personnel to other jurisdictions, it would appear prudent to make correctional officers positions more competitive with that of local law enforcement. In addition, other problems would develop if the salaries were raised for only entry level positions. This practice would "compress" the salary scale and may allow for lower level personnel to make more than their supervisors. If correctional officer salaries were raised to the Compensation Board base salary for that of a deputy sheriff it would bring their salaries, at entry level, to the approximate median for bordering states.

There are 6,810 uniformed security staff within the Department of Corrections. Based on salaries effective December 1, 1996, the cost to implement this would be $902 per person annually, for a total cost of $6,142,620, annually, at current staffing levels.

The correctional officers' retirement system is competitive with bordering states but is less than a significant portion of Virginia law enforcement. Of the correctional officers surveyed in conjunction with this study, retirement benefits were important but ranked behind other issues of pay and safety.

Turnover within the Department of Corrections is a problem. While the turnover rate is not necessarily out of line with bordering states, it does represent a significant financial loss to the Commonwealth. Staff believes that taking a multi-level approach to solving recruitment and retention issues, starting with the most serious concerns first, addressing them, gauging success or failure, and then moving to the next phase, is the most logical and cost efficient method of remedying these issues. Staffing was a significant concern for almost all officers surveyed. The ratio of officers to inmates, particularly at medium security dormitories, mandated overtime, and vacant positions, all have contributed to a general uneasiness within the correctional officer ranks.

The final issue addressed concerning correctional officers was incentive/bonus pay. There is widespread desire for educational incentive pay. This would assist in getting more qualified applicants and help encourage current employees to stay. Another consideration is other differential pay, such as, shift differential and hazardous duty pay. Lastly, a plan for bonus pay for continued employment should be considered. This would aid in the retention of trained officers. The bonuses would be a one-time, lump sum payment.

Probation and parole officers concerns were somewhat different with respect to priority than the correctional officers. Salaries for probation/parole officers are competitive with bordering states. The turnover rate is low by comparison with both correctional officers and the statewide rate. Retirement and staffing were the two major concerns that did surface. Staffing may become more of an issue if sentencing guidelines are changed in the future, but at present the general consensus is that the impact of current sentencing guidelines needs to be closely monitored. Retirement was the number one concern. The probation and parole employee at present has been on the job longer, and considers the job a "career", more so than do the correctional officers.

Recommendation 1: A new staffing study for the Department of Corrections should be made as soon as possible. Particular emphasis should be placed on security staff and probation/parole officers.

Recommendation 2: The salary for entry level correctional officers should be raised to the same amount as the Compensation Board base amount for that of a deputy sheriff. In addition, the funding levels for all uniformed security personnel, through Major, should be increased by a like amount to prevent "compressing" the salary scale.

Recommendation 3: The existing VRS retirement plan for correctional officers should not be changed at this time. To assist in the efforts in recruitment and retention within the Department of Corrections, this issue should be revisited within the next two years, as a part of a follow-up assessment on the impact of actions taken this year.

Recommendation 4: Retirement benefits for probation/parole officers should be reevaluated next year, based on changing job requirements, that make their work more related to enforcement than it has been in the past.
(*1) For draft Drug Testing Policy of the Department of Corrections, see Appendix B.