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Utah eases correction officer age limit to 19 to tackle labor shortage

Entrance to the Wasatch Unit at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Draper, Utah.
Courtesy Utah Department of Corrections
Entrance to the Wasatch Unit at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Draper, Utah.

The Weber County Sheriff’s Office is one of several Utah law enforcement agencies taking advantage of a new state law that lowers the minimum age of correctional officers from 21 to 19.

The bill, SB 96, moved quickly through the legislature this session and has already been signed into law by the governor.

One of the primary goals of the measure is to ease the labor shortage many sheriff’s offices and corrections departments are facing.

The Draper State Prison was short about 120 correctional officers as of late January, according to Utah Division of Prison Operations Director Spencer Turley. In Weber County, the sheriff’s office has had a shortage of 30 to 50 correctional deputies for more than a year.

“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 said in a statement.

The move to lower the age limit statewide comes after a pilot program in the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office that began in 2019. In a recent House law enforcement committee hearing, Sheriff Rosie Rivera said her office hired 52 19-year-olds, most of whom are still working in county jails. Ten have since gone on to other police agencies and three left or were fired.

“The numbers are showing the program works,” she told lawmakers.

Dianna Cervantes, who was hired as a 19-year-old under the pilot program, said it gave her a chance to get some experience prior to 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.”

Sheriff Rivera said she sees lowering the age requirement as both a successful and promising change to bring more people into law enforcement careers. She added that younger officers are not allowed to carry guns and are limited to certain positions, such as booking and processing.

Maj. Scott Stephenson, director of peace officer training for the Utah Department of Public Safety, was more hesitant of lowering the age minimums. The requirement for police officers in the state is still 21, presumably, he said, because older adults have a little more life experience beyond high school and time to develop their decision-making capabilities.

While corrections employees in jails and prisons experience a more controlled environment than officers in the field, he said they can still be difficult places to work.

“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.

Rivera said the maturity of younger officers has not been an issue so far and said that some people who applied were “weeded out” due to concerns.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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