This symbol is inside of the Alaska Department of Corrections office on Sept. 7, 2022, in Douglas. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)

This symbol is inside of the Alaska Department of Corrections office on Sept. 7, 2022, in Douglas. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska Police Standards Council turns down plan to lower hiring age of corrections officers — for now

The Alaska Police Standards Council voted down a regulation change that would allow the state to hire corrections officers as young as 18 years old — the current minimum age for hire is 21 years old.

The Department of Corrections floated the proposal as a tool to combat its staff shortage, decreased applicant pool and high vacancy rate. In September, the department reported more than 100 open positions and a 30% decrease in applications compared to the previous year.

Most members of the council wanted to accept the new regulation, but said the department needed a plan in place to train and support younger hires.

Department of Public Safety Deputy Commissioner Brian Barlow said he was among those who had “discomfort” with the regulation as written. “However, I do think there’s a way forward,” he said.

He said there are dangers associated with hiring younger people to work with hardened criminals, but that there is also a danger in having a significant number of vacant positions in a corrections facility.

Council Chair Rebecca Harmon said her experience with younger first responders in King Salmon has shown her that 18-year-olds can handle responsibility in areas like emergency medical services.

“We’ve got EMS kids who start volunteering at 18 and become solid parts of our volunteer team for the rest of their adult lives. So I think it can be managed,” she said, and added that she would like a “very robust ethics training.”

“I feel like if we did put together a program where we’re welcoming young people in, I think we have to really do our due diligence about training them appropriately,” she said.

Some council members, including former Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner Dan Carothers, spoke out against the regulation change. He cautioned that an immature person would risk the safety of the Department of Corrections, staff and inmates and urged the department to consider alternatives before lowering the minimum hiring age.

“It’s a very difficult job and it takes someone to be fully developed and have a very clear and strong understanding of right and wrong. And I have concerns about it because I think 18-, 19-year-olds, I mean, they make mistakes,” he said.

David Knapp, a Palmer corrections officer, said the idea is not popular among his colleagues. “When this regulation proposal came out, I took it upon myself to go out and talk to my fellow officers. I’ve talked to dozens and dozens about this issue. Not one supports it,” he said.

North Pole Police Chief Steve Dutra supported the regulation change. “We see a lot of kids that we’d like to hire at 18, because they’re just super squared away,” he said. “I think this could work, honestly. Just put a little effort and work into it and create a program.”

Initially the council planned to table the proposal until the Department of Corrections came up with more specific plans for how to train and support younger hires, but ultimately it supported a motion to reject the regulation.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Jennifer Winkelman said she and her staff would take the comments into consideration. She said the department would return to the council with “additional language on what this could look like.”

Once the department returns to the council with a more detailed proposal, council members indicated they would be ready to approve it and open another 30-day public comment period.

• Claire Stremple is a reporter based in Juneau who got her start in public radio at KHNS in Haines, and then on the health and environment beat at KTOO in Juneau. This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government. This article was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Domestic Violence Impact Fund.

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