BY ANA CEBALLOS
NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – A criminal justice package that would help state correctional facilities address a growing problem with staffing shortages and drones flying contraband into prisons advanced Tuesday in the Florida House with the endorsement of the head of the Department of Corrections.
“Obviously, I support this legislation – drones and prisons don’t mix,” Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said. “Not only is there the risk of contraband, but even the use of drones to surveil the prisons, look at our security procedure and look at inmates in our facilities … is a risk to our facilities.”
The House Civil Justice Subcommittee approved the proposal without opposition. The measure (PCB CRJ 19-01) would ban the use of drones over and near state and private correctional facilities as well as juvenile detention centers. Also, the bill would lower the minimum age of correctional officers from 19 to 18.
Inch said changing the age eligibility would be a big help to help fill vacancies in prisons, an ongoing problem statewide.
The turnover rate for state correctional officers last year was 29 percent, department spokeswoman Michelle Glady said. At the end of last year, the department counted nearly 2,000 vacancies.
“Properly staffed correctional institutions help strengthen public safety across the state, and this legislation directly assists the department by increasing the number of eligible candidates for hire,” Glady said.
Last month, prison wardens urged members of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee to adequately fund the department as it deals with aging facilities and the problems with retaining prison staff.
Reasons for shortages
Most wardens testified that staffing shortages are fueled by low salaries, poor working conditions and high demand for overtime shifts.
Inch asked lawmakers to picture the minimum-age proposal as an opportunity to give high school students interested in law-enforcement careers an early start.
“I’m very confident in our ability to train them and lead them well,” Inch said. “This will start our process in addressing the recruitment and retention problem we have in our state correctional system.”
Inch said training for 18-year-olds would include unarmed self-defense training.
The fact that the measure emerged as a committee bill – rather than a regular bill filed by a House member – signals that it will be a criminal-justice priority of House Republican leaders. It was not clear Tuesday when the measure will be heard next.