Editorials, Opinion

Justice says emergency in jails is over. Is it?

After nearly two years, Gov. Jim Justice has rescinded the state of emergency over jail staffing shortages. It is a cause for celebration — and possibly one for concern.

Good news: The vacancy rate for uniformed corrections officers is down to 12% from a high of roughly 33% a year ago. Over 230 people have graduated from the corrections training program since January, and more than 30 of the National Guardsmen who were deployed to assist in the jails have decided to remain on staff.

Bad news: Non-uniformed corrections staff still has a vacancy rate around 20%. The difference could be that uniformed officers received substantial pay increases while a pay raise for non-uniformed staff died in committee during the regular legislative session. Based on the success of higher salaries for officers, we think it likely that similar raises for administrative staff could help bring that vacancy rate down.

Good news: All National Guardsmen (sans the ones who became official employees) have withdrawn from the state’s jails.

Bad news (albeit retroactive): Over 730 National Guard members circulated through our jail system in the last two-ish years. At its peak, more than 400 guardsmen were actively working with the Department of Corrections to shore up operations. That number is staggering. It’s one thing to talk about percentages; those are useful but abstract statistics. It’s another to see the actual number; that makes it feel real in ways a percentage can’t.

Good news: Enough staffing holes in our jails have been plugged that the whole system (and individual facilities) is not in danger of sinking and, as a result, fewer people are jumping ship.

Bad news: The staffing shortages may no longer be a crisis, but they are still a problem. We’re concerned that Justice lifting the state of emergency may have been premature. It will certainly look good for Justice’s campaign — a win he can tout to voters as he pursues a U.S. Senate seat. However, this could cause the staffing issue to be shifted to the Legislature’s backburner.

We can clearly see that the situation has drastically improved, and we give kudos to every staff member (new and old) and policymaker who helped make this happen. However, “improved” isn’t “solved.”

Without the pressure of the state of emergency, lawmakers may be less willing to take up legislation that will fill those remaining gaps — like pay raises for non-uniformed employees. Even with the urgency of the crisis and the public scrutiny, it still took close to two years to get this far. If the political will to keep fighting the battle wains, will the Department of Corrections lose everything it has gained?

We hope not, but only time can tell.