Smart justice: Bill seeks to give prisoners education, cut down sentences

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CAPITOL NEWS SERVICE) - One out of four prisoners released in Florida will end up back in prison within three years.

A bill on the governor's desk gives prison inmates a reason to get an education and lower their chances of being repeat offenders.

The bill would let prisoners get out two months early if they complete their high school education behind bars. The average felon in Florida prison has just a sixth-grade education.

The lack of education combined with a criminal record can make it difficult to find employment. No job, more often than not, leads to a criminal relapse.

Barney Bishop, President and CEO of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, said other states with similar laws have seen drastic reductions of return offenders.

"Part 1A is getting them the education. Part 1B is then getting them that job and if we can do those two things then the chance of them recidivating is diminished," said Bishop.

Giving prisoners an education behind bars means they will leave with a better shot at life than they might otherwise have. The bill is a part of a shifting attitude in the Florida prison system.

"Present programming to inmates, encourage them to do the program and get the education, get the additional skills, reward them for that. So we put out a better citizen when they leave prison," said Corrections Secretary Julie Jones.

Not only will released prisoners be more marketable to potential future employers, but their self-esteem may also increase.

"It makes them proud of themselves, more importantly, it makes them understand that if they work hard they're diligent that they have the opportunity to succeed," said Bishop.

Prisoners serving a life sentence or mandatory minimum would not qualify for the reduced sentence under the bill. And each prisoner who leaves two months early will save taxpayers about $3,000 in room and board.

The Florida Smart Justice Alliance said the state will cut down on repeat offenders returning to prison if they provided better addiction and mental health treatment behind bars.