The council that sets and enforces standards for employment, training and certification of law enforcement officers in the state approved a proposal to lower the minimum age of state corrections officers from 21 to 18 years old on Thursday. The proposal will go out to public comment before any regulation change takes effect.
Alaska’s Department of Corrections is feeling the same hiring pressures as law enforcement across the country and needs a wider applicant pool, Commissioner Jen Winkelman told the Police Standards Council in its meeting on Thursday.
“These are tough jobs,” she said. “We’re just not seeing folks want to come and be correctional officers. It’s law enforcement. We’ve got social unrest around law enforcement.”
Applicants for correctional officer jobs have dropped 30% since last year, according to the department’s human resources director, Keri Johnson. “The quality of applicants has gone down. We are seeing more issues and background having to track down a lot of court paperwork, things like that,” she said.
Winkelman said they expect the problem to worsen before it improves. Currently the department has a nearly 10% vacancy rate — 105 correctional officer positions are open.
“They’re just not glamorous positions to go into a facility and work with criminals day in and day out,” said Winkelman. She said the department has already tried $10,000 hiring incentives and attendance bonuses “and we still see that we’re losing some ground.”
Winkelman said the department would not lower standards for younger recruits — 18-year-olds would be evaluated with the same medical and psychological exams as any other employee.
Ron Dupee, chief of police in Fairbanks, said he is also losing officers and referred to a change in the state retirement benefit system.
“I think we’re all in the same boat. It’s the keeping people once we get them that’s the problem. And doing away with the defined benefit has really been a detriment to the retention piece for law enforcement within the state, whether it’s corrections or police,” he said.
The state used to offer public employees a pension-style retirement program, known as a “defined benefit” program, but it switched to a 401(k)-style retirement program in 2006. A bill to somewhat revive those benefits for officers and firefighters will be considered by the state Legislature next year. The officers covered by the bill include correctional officers as well as police and probation officers.
Council President Rebecca Hamon said she’s also a school board member and sees a benefit in keeping young people in careers in Alaska directly out of high school.
“There is sort of a gap between the time a person is 18 and graduates from high school and when they turn 21 and become eligible for certain jobs,” she said. “I can see a real advantage to setting this up as a career path straight from high school and not having these young people get distracted with other careers or leaving the state in order to look for other opportunities before they can enter into our workforce.”
Commissioner Winkelman said she was excited about that prospect, too.
Currently, she said, the Department of Corrections does go to job fairs and high schools, but any interested students have to wait several years before they can even consider applying.
The council voted unanimously to send the proposed regulation change to public comment, which will be open for 30 days.