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Steinburg backs better prison pay, bonuses; blasts Hooks raise

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Sen. Bob Steinburg

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, is supporting both raises and recruitment bonuses for correctional officers – and continues blasting the $23,000 raise recently granted to Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks, who's overseeing a prison system Steinburg claims remains in “disarray.”

Steinburg, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety, provided updates on the committee's work, and discussed his concerns with DPS salaries, in an interview with The Daily Advance on Thursday.

Since Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, formed the committee in March, it's held nine meetings and is preparing to present its recommendations in about a week, Steinburg said.

Steinburg declined to detail those recommendations while they're pending, but said some of them will come with a large “price tag” and may have to be implemented over several years.

One of Steinburg's focuses on the committee has been higher pay for correctional officers. Lawmakers and other prison reform advocates have linked low pay – and therefore high vacancies and turnover – to deadly attacks within Bertie and Pasquotank Correctional Institutions in 2017. An inmate killed one officer at Bertie and four inmates were involved in four deaths at Pasquotank.

Vacancies also remain high at Pasquotank, where almost 40 percent of correctional officer positions are vacant, based on the latest numbers from DPS. A department spokeswoman reported that, as of April 30, there were 264 correctional officer positions and 102 were vacant, not counting employees who took leaves of absence that month. Prison system-wide, there were 9,273 correctional officer positions and 1,860 were vacant.

Based on other numbers she shared, average pay for Correctional Officers I, II, and III range from almost $35,000 to just over $39,000.

Gov. Roy Cooper and state lawmakers agree that correctional officers need raises, but how large is to be determined. In his proposed budget, Cooper called for 1.5-percent raises or $500, whichever is greater, for all state employees, while advocating correctional officers and other law enforcement positions get an additional $500 a year.

Budget writers in the House of Representatives have instead called for 5-percent raises for correctional officers; how much the Senate may propose in its budget is to be determined.

Speaking for himself and not necessarily committee members, Steinburg said he supported the 5-percent raises – and also suggested correctional officers should get bonuses if they successfully recruit new officers.

Under that proposal, an officer would get the bonus if they recruited a qualified new person and they stayed in the job at least a year. The bonus could be $3,000 to $5,000, he suggested.

“It would give incentive to make sure a new officer succeeds,” Steinburg said after describing correctional officer turnover as creating a “revolving door” at some prisons.

While Steinburg is supporting higher pay for the prisons' rank-and-file, he has taken a harsher line against the system's upper management. In the most recent example, he's harshly criticized DPS Secretary Erik Hooks for accepting a $23,000-a-year raise in April. That brought his pay up to $179,403 a year, or the fifth-highest salary for a state Cabinet secretary. Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon is the highest paid, at about $222,000 a year.

“You talk about insensitive,” Steinburg said of Hooks' raise, also calling it “insulting” to officers and even “premature,” given lawmakers' talk of separating corrections from DPS.

As reported by WRAL in Raleigh, Hooks was of some 300 DPS employees, including senior leaders and state troopers, who got some $1.7 million total in raises in April.

Hooks has declined to personally defend his raise, leaving that to DPS and Office of State Human Resources spokespersons. In emails, they explained it reflects Hooks' oversight of the state's largest department, with about 25,000 employees across seven divisions, including Highway Patrol, Emergency Management, and corrections.

They also pointed to his growing responsibilities, such as establishing a new Office of Recovery and Resiliency focused on hurricane preparedness, handling new “Raise the Age” legislation for juvenile defenders, increasing school safety, and more.

They also noted the sheriffs in Mecklenburg and Wake, who oversee just those large, urban counties, make $191,000 and $180,000 a year, respectively.

Steinburg acknowledged Hooks' many duties, but argued he must still be judged by the performance of the prison system.

“His job is also corrections, and he's failed” there, Steinburg said, describing the prison system as having a “bloody nose” since the 2017 attacks.

In also describing the raise as premature, Steinburg noted he and other prison committee members strongly support separating Adult Corrections and Juvenile Justice into their own Cabinet departments. He introduced legislation to that effect, Senate Bill 579, last month, and it remains in the Judiciary Committee for review.

Steinburg reiterated he believes DPS has become too large to effectively manage, and reiterated the prison system should be its own department, with a Cabinet secretary recruited through a national search.

The DPS spokeswoman wrote that, “while DPS is open to hearing how a restructuring of these agencies may be beneficial in the long run to public safety, the potential impacts should be given thorough analysis.”

DPS also declined to address whether Hooks would accept a pay cut if Corrections is separated from DPS – a move that would reduce the DPS secretary's responsibilities.

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