Utah recently passed a state law lowering the correction officer minimum age requirement from 21 to 19 in an effort to alleviate labor shortages faced by sheriff’s offices and correction departments.
Senate Bill 96 moved rapidly through the legislature and was signed into law by Governor Spencer Cox to get jail staffing numbers up to par.
The Weber County Sheriff’s Office is one of several agencies that plan to take advantage of the law when hiring new employees.
“We have seen success with this strategy in other agencies, and we look forward to integrating this capable age group into our team,” Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon stated.
The sheriff’s office stated that they have had a shortage of 30 to 50 correctional deputies.
According to the Utah Division of Prison Operations Director Spencer Turley, the Draper State Prison was short 120 corrections officers.
Salt Lake City Sheriff Rosie Rivera said that her department was the first to implement a pilot program in 2019 to lower the age restrictions for correctional officers. The department hired 52 19-year-olds to work in county jails.
“The numbers are showing the program works,” she told lawmakers after just three left or were fired from the program.
The openings could also help young officers prepare for future positions in law enforcement.
Dianna Cervantes, one member of the pilot program, said the job gave her valuable experience before joining the Unified Police Department.
“I’ve learned communications skills, de-escalation skills that no academy would’ve been able to teach me,” she said. “I’m grateful for the fact that I had two years to be ahead.”
Rivera stated that younger officers are limited to positions such as booking and processing and are not allowed to carry guns.
However, the law is not without its detractors.
Major Scott Stephenson, director of peace officer training for the Utah Department of Public Safety, was skeptical of the new law. He raised concern about 19-year-olds’ lack of experience that could lead to problems.
“When you put a 19-year-old that’s one year removed from high school with very limited life experience, there’s always that concern that somebody younger could be manipulated by a more seasoned, hardened criminal,” he said.
The bill requires applicants to undergo a background check for criminal history and moral character and to not have any adverse psychological or emotional conditions that could affect their performance on the job.