Editorial: Solving the overtime conundrum

At some point in the use of employee overtime, the savings and added cost lines cross. The savings come from not having to provide benefits to another employee and usually his or her family. The price paid comes in extra pay, costs incurred when an overworked employee burns out, the money that must be spent to hire and train a replacement and diminished employee morale when overtime is mandatory.

In New Hampshire and most states, the lines crossed long ago.

When the employees are corrections officers, the cost comes in added danger for inmates and guards alike. Last week during a prison uprising in Alabama, one guard was stabbed and the warden attacked. At the time, just 17 guards were overseeing more than 900 prisoners.

Last week, Monitor reporter Allie Morris described the serious, ongoing problem faced by a corrections system that does not get adequate legislative support. The system’s overtime budget for guards more than doubled between 2009 and 2014, from $3.3 million to $8.1 million. Overtime earnings allowed many officers to make more than Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn, who collected $119,335 last year.

Staff-to-inmate ratios must be maintained for prisons to be safe, but with only 419 of the statewide system’s 468 corrections officer positions filled, that’s hard to do. As a consequence, most of the overtime is mandatory.

Blame the improved economy and demographics for much of the shortage.

New Hampshire’s unemployment rate is 4 percent or so, and the state, like the nation, is aging. When the economy is good, jobs in construction and other fields pay more than jails and prisons, and tend to be less stressful and dangerous. Corrections officers can retire after 20 years, and many, whose earnings are swollen by years of overtime, do so with handsome pensions. Last month, two prison guards were hired; on April 1, four will retire. Recruiting is a constant task but few who apply pass muster, turned down for past drug use or criminal offenses or failure to complete the rigorous academy.

Every state has a staffing problem. It’s worse in states that lock up a bigger percentage of their citizens. New Hampshire is on the low end in that regard, but its failure to provide adequate training, treatment, education and rehabilitation contributes to a recidivism rate that keeps prisons full. The current prison census is 2,693, each at a cost of more than $30,000 per year. The corrections system continues to combat recidivism with what resources lawmakers will give it, but barring a more enlightened and fiscally responsible Legislature, that will never be enough.

The best solution lies not in dramatically increasing pay for guards but providing more money for substance abuse programs and reducing the prison population. Laws requiring mandatory sentencing should be reconsidered. Drug courts and other alternatives to incarceration should be increased. Sentencing reform, which has achieved bipartisan support nationally, should be carried out.

About 20 people with mental illnesses – who pose a danger to themselves or others but were never convicted of a crime – live in the prison’s Secure Psychiatric Unit. They should be moved from the prison to a newly built secure facility attached to the state mental hospital. There, the federal Medicaid program would pay half the cost of their incarceration and treatment.

Ultimately, the best way to address the guard shortage lies in lowering the recidivism rate and reducing the number of people behind bars.

Sunday, March 20, 2016
(Published in print: Sunday, March 20, 2016)

SOURCE: http://www.concordmonitor.com/home/21602393-95/editorial-solving-the-ove...