Private contractors that run Florida programs for juvenile offenders pay workers some of the lowest wages in the nation, says the Palm Beach Post. Child advocates say that is causing crippling staff turnover and putting teens in danger. The average Florida worker earn $17,398 a year to guard and mentor difficult juveniles offenders in residential programs, says the Florida Juvenile Justice Association. That is $8.36 an hour – about what they could make to supervise fast-food workers, stock shelves, or collect tolls on the turnpike. It is less than a juvenile correctional officer makes to do the same job in Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama, South Carolina, and Louisiana, the Post found in a survey of 20 other states. Despite a lower cost of living and smaller tax base, the state of West Virginia pays its workers nearly $3,000 a year more than Florida’s private contractors.
The private contractors say the programs are nearing a crisis. Teens are being hurt by young, inexperienced staff members. Workers are quitting almost as fast as programs can train them. The Post in December found hundreds of people hired to guard juveniles despite records of violence, abuse, or incompetence in previous jobs and turnover topping 60 percent in residential programs managed by private contractors. A Palm Beach County grand jury report last year said wages as low as $8 an hour and poor training contributed to violence and chaos at the Florida Institute for Girls. Workers sometimes locked the girls in their room, forcing them to miss school and activities, because they did not have enough people to guard them. Many juvenile centers lose staff to Florida’s adult prisons, where corrections officers start at $29,000 a year. Not all states have such a large gap between the adult and juvenile systems.