Pay Increases: A Step in the Right Direction for Corrections and Juvenile Justice

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Governor Matt Bevin, Kentucky, authorized significant pay increases for correctional officers working in the State’s prisons and for youth workers employed by the State’s juvenile justice facilities.  These pay raises are aimed at improving retention and maintaining a professional workforce.  But do they go far enough?

Correctional officers and Youth workers are on the front line caring for adults and juveniles convicted of crimes and sentenced to a period of time in an institution.  They interact daily with persons who may be prone to violence, and for this, they should be appropriately compensated.  Moreover, pay increases demonstrate that someone’s work is valued, and feeling valued is linked to improved performance and longevity (Rhoades and Eisenberger, 2002).  I would argue, however, that there are other important measures that must be taken to enhance the professionalism and effectiveness of the corrections and juvenile justice workforce. 

The job of correctional officers and youth workers is, primarily, to maintain a safe environment.  This involves much more than strutting around with an air of authority, barking out orders.  It requires keen observation skills, constant interaction and negotiations, and a certain level of compassion and sensitivity.  These skills and attitudes don’t come from a paycheck alone.  They come from a strategic effort to hire and retain the right people for the job.

This strategic effort begins with a reconceptualization of the correctional officer and youth worker positions.  These staff spend more time with inmates and youth than any other job classification, yet they tend to be the least qualified workers within the institutions.  To be effective we need to hire persons who are interested in creating an environment that is conducive to positive growth and change for inmates and youth.  We need to hire effective change agents who are capable of implementing the type of evidence-based practice that provides the foundation for corrections and juvenile justice reform in Kentucky.  In sum, we need to hire better educated people for the job. 

Education plays a key role in any strategic effort to increase the effectiveness of corrections and juvenile justice staff.  Studies revealed that corrections and juvenile justice programs are more effective when they employ staff who have earned a college degree in criminal justice or some other helping profession (e.g., psychology, social work) (Gendreau, French, & Gionet, 2004; Makarios, Lovins, Latessa, & Smith, 2014).  Pay increases will enhance the likelihood of getting more qualified people into correctional officer and youth worker positions which are now filled by people with limited education.  Current employees, however, should also be encouraged to pursue their education by providing tuition support and making promotions dependent on certain educational achievements. 

Incarcerated adults and youth are among the most challenging and vulnerable populations in our society.  We need an educated staff to manage their care and promote positive behavioral change.  Pay increases are a step in the right direction, but educational requirements and support are essential for building and maintaining the professional corrections and juvenile justice workforce that Governor Bevin and the Commonwealth of Kentucky hope to attain.  

Published on July 05, 2017