A legislative panel wants the Arizona Department of Corrections to provide more detailed information on why its correctional officers are leaving the agency and where they’re going.
The department is in the midst of a push to reduce its vacancy and attrition rates, which it primarily attributes to low pay. Lawmakers and Gov. Doug Ducey recently approved a 10-percent pay raise for correctional officers, but so far that hasn’t done much to alleviate the problem.
The Joint Legislative Budget Committee on Wednesday voted to require that the Department of Corrections compile more data that could help explain why the problem is so bad.
Specifically, the department’s quarterly reports to the committee must include summaries of responses from exit interviews with departing corrections officers on why they say they’re leaving and where they’re going.
The committee also wants quarterly reports on the average salary for correctional officers, including overtime pay. And it wants the department to report salary information for private prisons, federal prisons, law enforcement agencies and other competitors that lure away its correctional officers, including starting salaries, whether they’ve gotten pay raises in the previous year and the number of vacant positions for those other agencies.
The department reported to the committee that 41 percent of departing correctional officers cited low pay as their top reason for leaving in exit interviews from January to August. Since the pay raise went into effect on July 1, 65 percent still said salary was their biggest concern, suggesting that the increase wasn’t enough.
“We are still underfunding our corrections officers at this point,” said Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, who chairs the committee.
As of Aug. 26, the department’s vacancy rate was 19.4 percent, with 5,158 correctional officer positions filled and 1,290, with another 208 in training. The department plans to fill 203 vacancies per quarter, with a goal of 812 new officers added by the end of June 2020.
But since the pay raise went into effect, the department has lost a net total of 74 correctional officers.
“We’re almost at the end of the first quarter and we’re negative 74 when we need to be positive 203,” said Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson.
In May, the department raised its weekly cap on overtime hours from 24 to 32, which led to an increase of about 30 percent in the average number of overtime hours worked by correctional officers. Legislative budget analyst Geoff Paulson explained at Wednesday’s hearing that total overtime pay within the department jumped from nearly $45 million in the fiscal year 2017 to about $67 million last fiscal year.
Joe Profiri, the department’s acting director – longtime director Charles Ryan retired this month, and a search is underway for his successor – told the committee that there is some good news when it comes to staffing levels. He said the department was recruiting an average of 18 new correctional officers per week prior to the pay raise, but that number climbed to 22 per week since July 1.
“We’re starting to make some inroads,” Profiri said. “We’re doing things in the recruitment to get people in the front door and on board to the Department of Corrections.”
In addition to the pay raise, Profiri said the department was aided by recent legislation that lowered the minimum age for correctional officers from 21 to 18 years. In the two most recent classes of recruits, Profiri said 22 percent were 18-20 years old.