The Truth About Starting Salaries in Corrections

Candid Insights About the Salary of a First Year Cadet

You've likely heard the rhetoric before: "There are no riches in law enforcement!", or perhaps you have encountered variations on the theme. Nevertheless, this is a relatively accurate statement. Why do I say "relatively"? The more significant monetary rewards may arrive but, with few exceptions, it generally takes a long-spanning career as a peace officer before you get near or surpass the six-figure salary plateau.

Since we are discussing the early stages of your law enforcement or correctional career, let's stick to the fundamental details for now, specifically starting salaries.

A quick search for the occupational profile of correctional officers on respected sites such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (among other salary-reporting sites) and you will readily find the seemingly meager starting compensation for entry-level positions in the category of protective services. Many careers in law enforcement, whether working on the streets or in jails, pay what some consider poverty level wages.

Salaries Vary Depending on Location

Upon closer analysis, it is evident that salaries vary widely for first year cadets, depending primarily on the location of the employer. A good example of this was brought to light by a recent story stemming from the ongoing unrest in Fergsuon, Missouri. In a NBC News report, it was shown that various St. Louis County law enforcement agencies have officers working side by side - essentially doing the same job- with some of the officers receiving a pay rate of only $10.50/hour (roughly $23,000 per year), and others being paid roughly $70,000 per year. This disparity demonstrates an important point- that while national data provided about average salaries for peace officers may paint a fair picture of low starting salaries, there are many instances of entry level cadets making a livable wage- you just have to work in the right area.

To further illuminate this point, take the example of the Tampa Florida police department. Newly hired cadets in this department receive a starting salary of roughly $49,000 per year. When compared with the salaries reported for some St. Louis area departments (roughly $23,000 per year), this may seem like a king's ransom. Over time, as with most law enforcement entities, officers have the ability to climb the proverbial ladder. Pre-conceived "step plans" (structured raises based on years served) and promotional opportunities provide officers with a means to increase their salary. Factor in the built-in perks such as all equipment paid for, a solid health care plan, a robust pension, and a take-home police cruiser...and the compensation package is further enhanced. Altogether, officers in Tampa make an average of $94,000 (including benefits) according to Payscale, which is certainly not "riches", but is a very good wage by most standards.

Read more about correctional officer salaries.

Where Do Officers Earn Higher Salaries?

If you're wondering how Tampa can afford to pay such a great salary and benefits and where you can find other departments who pay well,  you're asking a great question. The simple answer is.... Tax Base. Any jurisdiction which has a large constituency (residents), viable commerce, tourism-based popularity, and is lead by innovative governance will surely be in a position to offer appealing compensation and employee benefits. Simply put: when the coin jar is full, officers benefit. Conversely, a small city or county with minimal resident population, little to no commerce, that suffers from stagnancy is only capable of generating so much revenue- and for paying higher starting salaries.

Does Lower Pay Result in Lower Quality Officers?

According to a November 25, 2014 article in The Economist, Eugene O’Donnell, a former policeman and current professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC, alludes to poorly paid peace officers as a major factor contributing to shoddy police work and the potential for corruption. Although O'Donnell's supposition will likely need statistical data to bolster his claim (or rebuke it), suffice it to officers salary should not be the driving force behind your commitment to excellence as a peace officer. Your decision and conviction to serve the public is paramount, or at least ought to be.

As the Clarion-Ledger put it: "The annual starting pay for a correctional officer in Mississippi is $22,006, which more than qualifies their family of three for food stamps." Despicable? Objectively-speaking, yes. The same report also denoted that corruption is rampant in Mississippi's prisons. Professor O'Donnell's theories may apply here: meager peace officer salaries breed corruption.

Will I Need a Second Job?

A vast majority of LEOs work second jobs to make ends meet. Whether it be as a landscaper, taxi driver, or house painter, peace officers from all walks of life take on the profession not to necessarily amass wealth--although I'm certain that luxury would not be declined--but do so with a sincere heart to do some good in the world.

Realistically, public service is in-and-of-itself an enriching life experience. I found it so fulfilling. However, I also had to work "extra-duty" aka privately-hired security gigs at graduation parties, traffic control at Sunday church gatherings, NFL games, closed-road marathons, etc. You won't hear any complaints from me; I performed my regular duty, rested, then donned a fresh uniform to work whatever extra-duty assignment I signed up for weeks prior. The fact remains; it is a choice. The compulsion to work second jobs to allow you to do a primary job you absolutely love is real. Put your career in context. Focus on advancement and higher-salaried promotional vacancies such as those with command responsibilities.

As it relates to corrections officers, overtime is often abundant and consistent. Either due to staff shortages, training ventures requiring covering regular shifts, sick jailers, or a host of reasons, salaries can be boosted via working extra duty hours.

Do Your Homework Before You Apply

Conduct a personal search yourself regarding the area in which you have a focus (or are already employed as a first-year cadet) and you will quickly uncover notable difference in compensation.

Naturally, we do not become peace officers to reap vast riches-we take the oath to serve the public whether it be in a police cruiser or in a correctional facility. In a nutshell, law enforcement agencies in organized, well-populated, commerce-rich suburban jurisdictions will have higher pay scales for their cops and jailers. Some even sweeten the pot if a cadet already has a college degree and/or other highly-specialized skill set(s). Do your homework before you apply...during your first-year cadet training and throughout your career. You can make it pay off, if patience and diligence are practiced.