Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Dallas will hire jail guards with distant past drug use

Dallas Sheriff Lupe Valdez has taken heat for not hiring enough deputies to adequately staff the jail, but as I've pointed out repeatedly, nobody in the state can find enough guards. Now she's taking steps to broaden the potential applicant pool, and, perhaps predictably, she's taking heat for that too. Reports the Dallas News ("Drug standards eased for prospective jailers," 2-20):

Applicants for detention officer positions no longer will be asked whether they have ever purchased illegal drugs.

In addition, they now will be eligible for employment as long as they haven't used illegal drugs in the last 10 years. Prior to the change, applicants would be disqualified even if they had tried drugs one time – years, even decades, ago.

County officials said the changes would not add significant risk to the county or reduce the quality of jail employees.

"This will increase our pool. But we do not believe it will diminish or minimize the integrity of the type of people we're hoping to hire for the jail," said Mattye Mauldin-Taylor, the county's human resources director whose office is handling recruiting for the sheriff. "It's increased our risk moderately. But it's not like we're hiring drug dealers."

But Sheriff's Department labor associations aren't so sure the change is a good idea.

"I think that's inviting trouble," said Ben Roberts, president of the Dallas Sheriff Fraternal Order of Police. "Mismanagement of the jails got us into this situation, and now we're having to lower our standards to deal with it."

Stan Thedford, a former sheriff's sergeant who is president of the Dallas County Sheriff's Association, had similar concerns.

"Lowering our standards isn't going to help," he said. "I agree we should change with the times, but what they're trying to do to solve the hiring problem is not the answer."

I look at these last quotes and wonder, "What would her critics have her do?" The Sheriff, like everyone in Texas trying to hire prison and jail guards, is caught between a rock and a hard place. There simply aren't enough people applying to fill all the slots under existing rules and wages. And since past drug use is one of the most common disqualifiers for potential employees, it makes a lot of management sense to limit that prohibition to drug use in the past ten years.

To me, it's pretty foolish for the Sheriff's Association to say, "Lowering our standards isn't going to help." I'd respond that it will absolutely help with the inability to fill deputy slots, while potentially increasing the risk of employee misconduct by some unknowable percentage. OTOH, how would it help to continue to understaff the jail?

Certainly there are pros and cons to the decision (though I think the cons are overblown), but such criticisms imply Valdez really had a choice, and I don't think she did. Not filling the slots risks the jail could actually be required to stop taking new prisoners by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS). So she has to hire new guards, and if this new policy lets her fill presently empty slots, it's certainly "going to help" keep that from happening.

The Sheriff is in a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario where none of her options look good. After all, these problems festered for years before she got there and now she's got to make hard choices that should have been decided long ago. At this point she's right to act decisively despite her critics.

If she can't fix the jail's problems, Valdez certainly deserves to be held accountable when she comes up for re-election next year. But to judge by their rhetoric, a lot of folks, most prominently the deputies' unions and the Republicans she beat out to take the office, apparently see her ouster as their actual goal, with the jail's woes merely a means to that end - something to exploit, not a problem they really want to solve.

That strategy will prove short-sighted if TCJS forbids taking new prisoners because of understaffing, or worse, if the feds take control of health services.

RELATED: From the Houston Chronicle this morning, "New Dallas DA brings new approach to 'failed system.'"


Catonya said...

Kudos to Valdez for taking a progressive approach.

In reality, if an applicant doesn't have a record and has any sense at all, it's unlikely they'll admit to past drug use on their application. Given this, I have to wonder if the applicant pool will actually increase all that much...?

Jason said...

Well where do you draw the line? What about applicants with past theft convictions? Or fraud convictions?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jason, I don't think anyone has proposed recruiting people with theft or fraud convictions. In fact, we're not even talking about drug convictions, just recruits answering truthfully whether they've ever used. I think Valdez's policy is eminently reasonable given the trouble recruiting guards. Don't you?

Hire Staff said...

I think Valdez Had a great idea..