Low Wages Fuel High Turnover Of State Corrections Officers

Jan 8, 2014

Low pay and lower-than-average starting salaries are fueling a high turnover of correction officers in Georgia’s prisons and juvenile facilities, costing the state tens of millions of dollars, according to a state audit.

At $24,322, the starting salary for a corrections officer in Georgia is about $2,500 below the national average, according to the audit. It’s also among the lowest in the southeast states, behind North Carolina, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee. Only South Carolina has a lower starting wage.  

Republican state Sen. Jack Hill of Reidsville chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, which requested the audit. He said Tuesday it’s time the state increase starting salaries for correction officers.

“I think there’s universal agreement among leadership of the state that this is an issue whose time has come to address.”

In the audit, exiting correction officers pointed to low starting salaries, infrequent pay increases, insufficient staffing, long hours on the job and dangerous conditions as reasons for leaving the job, though pay topped that list.

The report puts last year’s turnover rate among juvenile corrections officers at 57 percent. Among their counterparts at the Georgia Department of Corrections, it’s 29 percent. For comparison, the state average for other government employees is 17.9 percent.

The audit concludes that high turnover “results in officers with fewer years of experience and can create staffing shortages that require current employees to work beyond their scheduled shifts.”

“When you’re short staffed, the short staff leads to additional turnover because people are being held over [on extended shifts], you get caught in this cycle where you really need somebody in there, and can you afford to wait and do the types of reviews and spend the type of time to find somebody that you’re very confident this is a career for them and not just a job or paycheck,” said Matt Taylor of the state Department of Audits and Accounts, which conducted the audit.

Replacing those exiting officers – some of whom Taylor said stay for less than six months – is costing the state tens of millions. The state spends approximately $10,000 and $13,000 to hire and train juvenile officers and corrections officers, respectively, according to the audit. In total, the agencies spent $29 million to hire and train about 3,000 officers to fill staffing shortages last year alone.  “I don’t know that necessarily the cost to train an individual officer is necessarily all that high, but when you have such high turnover, obviously it costs the state a great deal of money,” Taylor said.

But while the audit says raising starting salaries for corrections officers would likely decrease turnover, increasing them by even $1,000 is “unlikely to generate enough savings to offset the costs …”

Hill said the financial bump would still be a start to addressing the retention issue.

“Even though that may not be the answer to every problem we have in corrections and DJJ, it is something we ought to do given the marketplace,” Hill said.  

Hill says he hopes to address the issue in the upcoming legislative session.