Deputies spread thin in courthouses, raising security concerns
PROVIDENCE — Staffing shortages in the state’s Division of Sheriffs are getting so critical that courts are considering temporary closures to ensure proper coverage.
“It’s a real problem,” State Court Administrator Julie Hamil said before the House Finance Subcommittee on Public Safety on Thursday at the State House. “It’s something that we deal with every day.”
In Rhode Island, sheriffs deputies are responsible for providing security inside the state’s courts. A full department requires 180 employees, Jim Cenerini, legislative affairs/political action coordinator at Rhode Island Council 94, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, told the subcommittee. The council represents Rhode Island Deputy Sheriffs Local 2409.
The number of sheriffs deputies in the state is now at 136, according to data from the Department of Public Safety.
“Their vacancy rate is almost approaching a quarter,” Cenerini said. “Unfortunately, the sheriffs have become a bit of a revolving door.”
Increasing the number of hours deputies work will help address the shortage, said both Hamil and Cenerini.
Not a 40-hour work week
The average work for a deputy sheriff is currently at 37.5 hours, according to the Division of Sheriffs website. But many only work 35 hours, said Cenerini. He added that when the Division of Sheriffs and State Marshals merged into a single entity in 2002, deputies were supposed to get the 40-hour week.
“It’s never been done,” he said.
Finally getting to 40 hours a week, Cenerini argued, would create a more efficient judiciary.
“They still have to go through roll-call, their check-in, and their assignments — which means they’re not hitting the court rooms until 9 a.m.,” he said. As a result, people who have been screened “are basically prowling the halls without direct supervision.”
To remedy this, the Department of Public Safety and the state’s judicial branch requested an additional $600,000 to transition all sheriffs to the 40-hour schedule in the state’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget.
“Though it doesn’t sound like an impactful change — it would make a difference,” Hamil said.
The governor’s office does not recommend this in its budget proposal. A spokesperson for the office could not be reached for immediate comment.
Drops in staffing have made it so deputies have to spread across multiple courtrooms, meaning judges sometimes cannot take the bench due to lack of security.
“It’s a palpable reality for the courts,” Hamil said. “The administration of justice is delayed.”
For normal staffing, Cenerini said, a room is required to have two deputies. Due to shortages, there is typically just one.
“Which is not safe,” he said. “If something happens while that other deputy is out, you’re putting people in danger. Luckily, I don’t believe anything has happened recently.”
Lack of security also extends to outside the buildings, something Hamil said led to an incident in September in which a judge was reportedly assaulted while getting to court. As a result, the judiciary now pays deputies overtime for an hour in the morning and an hour at the close of business, Hamil said.
The administration of justice is delayed.
Lower pension benefits and salaries compared to other public safety careers and a lack of promotion opportunities are all making it harder to retain sheriffs, officials said.
Cenerini said because of those concerns, deputies are leaving for jobs at local police departments.
The starting salary for deputy sheriff upon appointment is $53,244, with 15 increments over 25 years to $74,356. Starting pay in Newport is $54,228.
Although it is not part of the state’s budget recommendations, a bill filed by Rep. William O’Brien of North Providence would provide state employee public safety professionals a position of parity with their municipal counterparts. The bill, H5641, currently sits before the House Finance Committee. If signed into law, it would take effect on July 1.
The legislation would also set retirement contributions at 10% of their compensation.
“We think that would go a great way,” Cenerini said.