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Ex-prisoner heading to Stanford, pushing for justice reform

By Greg Bishop
Illinois News Network

(ILLINOIS NEWS NETWORK) – An Illinois man on his way to Stanford University with a full ride after having served 15 years of a 30-year prison sentence for marijuana trafficking hopes his story will help others and spur on criminal justice reform in his home state.

Jason Spyres, now 36, was caught with 38 pounds of marijuana back in 2001 in Macon County.

Court documents show Spyres was arrested after Decatur police were contacted by law enforcement from Red Bluff, California, about a package of marijuana they intercepted that was addressed to a Decatur residence. Police in Illinois got the package, repackaged some of the marijuana along with a transmitting device, and had an undercover officer dressed as a UPS employee deliver the package. Spyres was later arrested. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to prison.

Spyres said he was told time and again that he wouldn’t amount to anything.

“When I was told that I was legally un-rehabilitatable due to Class X sentencing, when I was told that I’m considered more heinous than a second-degree murder conviction, I said ‘this is not right,’” Spyres said.

Prison wasn’t the only punishment.

“While I’m locked up, I found out I was given over $200,000 in fines,” Spyres said. “Because I was so disillusioned in court with all the prison time I was getting, I didn’t pay attention to the fines.”

A Class X felony is the most serious category of felony in Illinois. Someone convicted of second-degree murder can be sentenced to probation.

Spyres said if he could go back in time to when he was 19 years old, he would have slapped himself and said “be a man.”

After getting out of prison, Spyres said he was accepted to the University of Illinois, but he was told he’d be on permanent academic probation. Instead, he chose Stanford University. The private university confirmed Spyres will be a student this fall. Spyres provided documentation showing grant and scholarship awards.

He said it is his mission to show others they can get past a criminal conviction.

“I didn’t want them to think that they couldn’t go open up their own mechanic shop, that they couldn’t go out and be a great father to their kid, that they couldn’t go be a landscape entrepreneur,” Spyres said.

He also wants his story to spur on criminal justice reforms such as expanding jobs skills programs at the Department of Corrections and addressing what he said are excessive fines.

“If you want a person to move forward and put their past behind them and rise above it and be a better person, quit weighing them down with ludicrous fines which you do not expect them to pay,” Spyres said.

Spyres said he’s going to Stanford for engineering management and science. In the meantime, he said he’s an operations manager for Woz-Ken Inc., which operates video slot machine outlets around central Illinois. He also travels to share his story and press for reforms.

Photo by Greg Bishop

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