TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday signed a bill lowering the minimum age to work as a correctional officer in the state from 19 to 18.
That means the Florida Department of Corrections and county jails will be able to start hiring younger guards starting July 1 to address a growing problem with staffing shortages.
Mark Inch, secretary of the Department of Corrections, endorsed the bill during this year's legislative session, arguing that changing the age eligibility would be a big help to his agency in filling vacancies.
Michelle Glady, a department spokeswoman, said in March that the turnover rate for state correctional officers last year was 29%, and the year ended with 2,000 vacancies.
New numbers provided Wednesday show there are now 2,380 vacant positions -- a 19% increase in just six months.
To increase the applicant pool, Rep. Spencer Roach, R-Fort Myers, sponsored the legislation to lower the minimum age to become a correctional officer 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,” Roach said.
The Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represents correctional officers, reluctantly agreed to hiring 18-year-olds.
”I guess we are at the point where we have no other choice but to put them into the prison,” said PBA Vice President for Services Jim Baiardi.
But even the union said it's just a stop-gap 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,” Baiardi said.
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.
The bill will also ban the use of drones over and near county, state and private correctional facilities as well as juvenile detention centers. That change is meant to help decrease the amount of contraband going into prisons and jails.