The Florida Department of Corrections is still dealing with staffing shortfalls, legislators in the Senate and House are hearing.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee and the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee heard similar presentations, which outlined progress made in remedying staffing shortfalls, along with a reminder that legislative work still needs to be done in 2023.

Deputy Secretary Richard Comerford told the Senate committee that 5,000 vacancies still exist statewide, with 23,375 positions overall. The vacancy rate of just over 25% is an improvement over November 2021’s 38.5%. But gaps still exist despite recent reforms in what can often be a “dangerous and undesirable place to work.”

“We often have one officer supervising hundreds of inmates,” Comerford told the Senate Criminal Justice panel. Recruitment and retention are recurrent challenges, despite the recent “positive shift” in trends, which include beginning the transition to 8.5-hour shifts and increases in pay.

“We were losing more correctional officers than we were gaining. Since that raise, the trend has reversed. We have turned the corner, but we’re not out of the woods yet,” Comerford told the Senate committee.

Three hundred National Guard members have helped in this end, with volunteers being part of a “very successful” initiative where they fill “critical roles on a short-term basis” while new hires are trained up.

“Their involvement’s been very positive,” Comerford said. “We’re recruiting them as well. We’ve gotten very positive feedback from some who may want to come into our ranks as soon as they’re done with this deployment.”

There are 2,400 conditional hires being processed, Comerford contended, well over the 500-600 a year ago.

“We’ve hired more each month than we’ve lost,” he said, with “positive gains” even during months around Christmas where attrition is more likely.

Comerford told Senate Criminal Justice that the ability to fill positions will help the department reactivate work squads to reduce “inmate idleness.” His hope is that some will start in a few months, while others will present more of a “challenge.”

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee is slated to hear its own presentation later Tuesday afternoon.

Secretary Ricky Dixon offered similar insights to the House Justice Appropriations panel about “significant vacancies.”

“Recruitment of qualified applicants and the retention of employees has been very challenging in recent years,” Dixon said, though trends have been positive since late 2021’s “freefall” due to pay increases and other support for hiring and retention efforts.

“The decline has started to slow recently,” Dixon acknowledged, due to holiday attrition and competition with local law enforcement hampering efforts at roughly a dozen facilities.

“3,000 (vacancies) is a lot to overcome,” Dixon said, specifically referring to the shortfall in correctional officer headcount.

Dixon likewise lauded the National Guard inclusion of 300 reinforcements as a “tremendous success … nothing but successful” with a “statewide” impact.

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