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Florida lawmaker aims to boost prison education with virtual learning

'We spend no money, no real resources on helping people learn to read,' Sen. Jeff Brandes says
State Sen. Jeff Brandes
Posted at 8:28 AM, Oct 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-07 08:28:30-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A Florida lawmaker wants to improve state prisoner education programs and reduce recidivism rates as a result.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said during a recent interview he was working with the Florida Virtual School to create a "justice education division."

"That would expand the resources of Florida Virtual and allow us to, in a very scalable way, provide education to thousands and thousands of people that are incarcerated," Brandes said.

Brandes hoped his idea would grow skills like literacy as about half of the state's 80,000 inmates can't read at the sixth-grade level. It's a major hurdle to finding work post-incarceration and impacts Florida's recidivism rate, which is currently around 24 percent.

"One of the primary factors of people able to get a job when they leave the prison system, and not committing new crimes, is the ability to read," Brandes said. "And yet we spend no money, no real resources on helping people learn to read."

The state senator has long been a champion of prison reform efforts, proposing and supporting several policy ideas during his tenure. Brandes is term-limited after 2022 but said he was leaving the chamber feeling he had made an impact.

"We have beat the drum louder than anyone for the last six years in the Legislature," Brandes said. "And just because I leave the Legislature doesn't mean I'm going to leave this issue. I think there's a space for a former legislator to step up and really provide data-driven information to the Legislature on how to turn a system that's currently focused on punishment and do a system that's focused on public safety."

Brandes hasn't filed any bill language for his virtual education idea yet, but he has plenty of time. Legislators return for the 2022 lawmaking session in January.