NORTH CAROLINA (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — Old enough to drive, not old enough to drink, just barely old enough to vote, but for some this is now a prime candidate pool.

Following a nationwide shortage of correctional officers, several counties across the Carolinas are getting creative to properly staff their jails.

This isn’t about lowering the bar – this is about lowering the age limit.

In uptown Charlotte, sidewalks see a constant coming and going of faces. Some on their way to work, others to experience the sights and the sounds of the Queen City.

But nestled between skyscrapers and office buildings, is the temporary home to hundreds.

“Everyone makes mistakes and different decisions,” Officer Laronda Alford with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office said.

Decisions that land the average Mecklenburg County Detention Center inmate behind locked doors for about six months.

“Just nervous, seeing 57 eyes looking at me at one time, reading a pod orientation, it’s kind of a little overwhelming,” Alford said.

Officer Alford’s tan uniform differentiates her from the orange jumpsuits worn by the men and women awaiting trial. For years, her job was providing them with day-to-day care. The majority of the time sitting behind a desk surrounded by 50 cells.

“I’ve always seen myself in this uniform and just wanted to help,” Alford explained.

But in recent years it’s unfortunately been easier to fill cells than uniforms.

In early 2022, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Resources found the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office failed to maintain enough staff to keep its facility safe.

As a temporary fix, the department hired a private security team to fill in the gaps and forced officers to work overtime.

“I do think that there are fewer people that are pursuing law enforcement careers. I think what has happened in our country over the last several years has really done a lot of damage to the law enforcement profession,” Chief Deputy of Operations Tony Underwood with the Union County Sheriff’s Office said.

Most recent findings show a 45 percent increase in retirement among correctional officers. Twenty percent more are also walking away from the job early, while fewer, are entering the industry.

“We constantly have openings,” Underwood said.

Sheriff’s offices across North Carolina are now competing for a smaller pool of candidates to fill positions deemed mandatory by the state. In Union County, Chief Tony Underwood said they are having to get creative.

“We saw an opportunity to take advantage of the law that requires a detention officer or corrections officer to be 20 years of age. They can begin working as a probationary employee versus a sworn law enforcement officer must be 21 to be sworn,” Underwood said.

Armed officers, unable to drink alcohol or rent a vehicle, are now eligible in Union County to guard a jail. York County is taking it a step even further, by lowering the age to 19.

“They can go and serve in the military at age 18. They can serve their country. I think under proper guidance with the right amount of training…I certainly think they are capable of doing that.”

On any given day, the Union County Detention Center is housing about 220 inmates and no, according to those whose job it is to watch over them, it’s not like what you see on TV.

“They will bark at you every now and then, but it’s mostly guys in there are professional. They are just trying to do their time and get out.”

At age 17, Officer Redmon Parker enlisted with the Marine Corps. A year and a half ago, he traded in his combat uniform for a badge and handcuffs.

“It can be a little bit hard on the body, getting used to schedules flipping and working long days, but it is something that you can get used to and grow in,” Parker.

Depending on the county, the detention officer position is seen as entry-level or the first step towards becoming a deputy patrolling the streets. After 18 months in the jail, they can apply for a higher service.

“We could potentially get them in the door working for us at age 20 as a probationary detention officer and then hopefully keep their services long enough to get them into basic law enforcement training at some later date.”

While some officers take the patrolling route, Sgt. Dayana Wilson went from manning the Mecklenburg County Jail to recruiting others for the job.

“It is kind of difficult to tell these individuals you are working 12-hour shifts versus being at home making typically the same amount of money, so we were up against a lot of employers,” Wilson said.

In the midst of a staffing crisis, the sheriff’s office developed a plan to get more people in the door: attending more job fairs, and college campuses, and joining Union and York County in lowering the age criteria from 21 to 20.

“From what I am seeing, we do have a few individuals in our process now that are actually 20 years old, but when we go to these career fairs at these universities, a lot of the younger, your freshmen, your sophomore, your juniors are the ones that are attending these career fairs, your seniors not so much so I think it will ultimately help us at the end.”

Detention staff are no longer facing mandatory overtime.

As of last month, the Sheriff’s Office had 137 job openings. Fifty-nine were detention officers. And while they hope creative thinking may solve the ongoing crisis, the cells at Mecklenburg County Jail remain full and the job openings continue to pile up.