The Legislature's habit of cutting corners when funding the Utah Department of Corrections over the past several years has turned into an expensive mistake. State-trained officers are leaving in droves for other law-enforcement entities. It is a scenario that should have been anticipated and prevented through more competitive compensation.
It is important for the Legislature to be frugal with public funds, and balancing the state budget is never easy. But this page and other voices have advocated channeling more money into adult and youth Corrections to mitigate overcrowding and stretching personnel beyond reasonable limits.As we noted in February: "Utah Corrections Director Pete Haun walked into a stiff dose of political reality when shown what a legislative subcommittee wants to do to his budget. The recommendation is down $9 million from what Gov. Mike Leavitt originally proposed."
That pared-back budget was eventually passed, but it and previous years' shortsighted budgets have come with a cost. Haun told the Legislature's Law-Enforcement Interim Committee last week that police officers and sheriff's deputies along the Wasatch Front make as much as 31 percent more than his own officers. More than 50 percent of his employees have applied for other jobs, and 93 percent indicate they would leave for better-paying positions elsewhere. Those figures are based on a 90-percent response rate from 2,246 Corrections employees surveyed.
Though shocking, the trend should be no surprise to those who should have been paying attention. In 1992, the average experience of a Corrections officer in Utah was nearly 10 years on the job. Today, the average is three years.
The reason is no surprise, when considering the harsh working environment and entry-level pay of about $10 per hour. That is below even rural Wyoming, which recently boosted salaries to an entry-level hourly figure of $13.66.
The result for the Beehive State is a loss of institutional memory, staffing shortages and a youthful pool of inexperienced guards who must deal with an increasingly violent prison population. The solution is more money, which must be allocated beginning immediately.
It will cost an estimated $18 million to bring Corrections salaries in line with other local law-enforcement agencies. That tough investment must be made. The money should be infused into the system over the next two to four years to slow the turnover and stabilize a department critical to Utah's public safety.