More programs focusing on reducing recidivism would be possible at the Coffee County Jail if there were enough corrections officers working at the facility, according to Coffee County Sheriff Chad Partin.
The county jail has for a long time lacked adequate manpower and has had a high turnover rate because the compensation of the corrections officers has not been competitive.
According to Partin, 77 corrections officers are supposed to work at the jail; however that number has averaged around 60.
The inadequate pay for corrections officers has been discussed several times by county officials over the last two years. Coffee County corrections officers are paid $3 to $4 less per hour compared to their counterparts in surrounding counties, officials say.
The high turnover and lack of sufficient manpower has led to spending money on training new employees and paying overtime. Last month, for example, five new officers started the training process and there were about 500 hours of overtime pay – a dollar amount of nearly $20,000 per month and $240,000 per year, according to officials with the sheriff’s department.
To eliminate the problem, the paychecks of the jail guards need to be adjusted.
Training new employees is time-consuming and costly – about $1,100 per person – and sometimes the associated costs take that total higher. And for a corrections officer making $12.22 per hour – the maximum pay rate currently – the hourly overtime pay rate is $18.33.
“We are bleeding money for no reason,” Partin said.
The money paid for overtime and continual training of new officers – about $240,000 per year – would be better spent if used to raise the pay of corrections officers from $12.22 to $14.22. Accomplishing that pay boost would take about $300,000, including benefits, said Partin.
“I am not griping, or whining or complaining,” said Partin. “It doesn’t matter if I am a sheriff; the previous sheriff had a problem [and] if they [county commissioners] don’t change anything, the next sheriff will have a problem.
“If that’s what they want … we are going to deal with it. But everybody bombards me wanting all these programs – and I want them, too, everybody here wants them – but it’s a safety issue. I have to have staff.”
Using savings for pay raises
Not only does the total cost of overtime pay and training new employees come near the amount that would be needed to provide the raises Partin wants, but if the reduced number of inmates at the jail stays low, the sheriff’s department will also likely see more than $1 million in savings that could be used to increase regular-time pay.
The judicial system and the sheriff’s department have worked together to reduce the local incarceration rate; and since Partin has been at the helm of the sheriff’s department, the jail population has seen a significant decrease – from about 420 inmates to about 320 inmates. If the trend continues, it would translate into about $1.5 million in savings.
It’s estimated that the annual cost to taxpayers per inmate is about $15,000.
Providing appropriate pay for corrections officers would allow the sheriff’s department to have full staff, which in turn would allow the implementation of additional programs to further reduce recidivism, and ultimately, the jail population, said Partin. And that, too, would mean savings for the county’s taxpayers.
Recidivism is one of the main reasons for high incarceration rates. According to the National Institute of Justice, depending on the type of offense, recidivism rates can be as high as 82 percent.
Programs, such as re-entry initiatives and those helping individuals battle addiction, can bring recidivism down to as low as 10 percent, according to the National Institute of Justice.
Launching a re-entry program
Partin hopes to be able to implement a re-entry program at the jail to provide inmates with in-jail training and services to prepare them for release. However, such a program would require additional staff.
Re-entry programs have the overall goal of reducing recidivism and improving inmates’ transition into the community.
The program would allow the sheriff’s department to partner with local industries and would provide training for inmates while they are in jail. It would also help individuals find and retain jobs once they finish serving their sentences.
“We will have more involvement in programs, if we could ever get our staff up,” Partin said. “We are doing everything we can to retain good help … but we are 17 corrections officers short right now.”
“Re-entry [programs] deal with anything of helping people get jobs,” Partin said. “A group of people would come in and work with the inmates for education, trades and skills – anything from interviews to what they wear to getting them into some type of job placement once they get out.”
Through the program, inmates would “find out what trades they are good at,” Partin said.
Those who would manage the re-entry program would help the inmates become “productive citizens and not look at a life of crime,” Partin added.
Representatives of local industries have already shown interest in participating in the program and approached the sheriff’s department, said Partin.
“They are wanting to do something for the female inmates,” he said. “If we had more corrections officers, they would take the inmates right out of the back door into the industrial park.”
Even with a limited staff, the sheriff’s department is holding several re-entry classes for female inmates in February, under an initiative called the Hope Program.
Upon release, all women who complete the Hope Program would receive a certificate of completion and a package that includes a variety of resources and supplies, according to Partin.
Elena Cawley may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.