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Group: End stigma placed on ex-offenders

By Greg Bishop
Illinois News Network

(ILLINOIS NEWS NETWORK) – A criminal justice reform group says more needs to be done to help people move on after prison.

Jason Spyres, a 36-year-old Illinois man who is out of prison after serving 15 years for trafficking cannabis, said he chose Stanford University after being told by a University of Illinois admissions dean that his criminal record meant a permanent scar on his academic record at the University of Illinois.

“He said ‘as long as you don’t get in trouble again it won’t matter.’ I said ‘yes, it will because when I apply to grad school I’ll have to check a box that says academic probation was served,’ ” Spyres said.

Spyres plans to go to Stanford this fall with a full ride of scholarships and grants.

Criminal justice reform group John Howard Association Executive Director Jenny Vollen-Katz said policies, such as requiring a box on job applications about criminal histories, need to change “and the same thing with education.”

“They need a fair chance at an education without being shut out of the process or held to a different standard simply because of their background,” Vollen-Katz said.

Vollen-Katz said policy makers too often seem unwilling to change some of the measures that foster prejudice against people who have been in prison.

Vollen-Katz said Spyres is an example of someone being rehabilitated.

Spyres said he is sharing his story to encourage reform.

“I’ve actively worked to try and get (Gov. Bruce) Rauner to get rid of Class X sentencing for non-violent criminals,” Spyres said.

Vollen-Katz said long sentences do not deter future crimes.

“In punishing that person we frankly punish everybody because the financial cost to the state is such that you have to wonder who’s winning here,” Vollen-Katz said. “We’re spending a lot of money to keep that person in prison when they have the possibility of being rehabilitated.”

Vollen-Katz said Illinois budget for the Department of Corrections is $1.4 billion.

The Vera Institute of Justice said Illinois’ average cost per inmate in 2015 was $33,500. That’s more than it costs for two years toward a general degree at the University of Illinois.

Both Vollen-Katz and Spyres said more needs to be done on sentencing reform, including addressing excessive fines, and ensuring there’s proper post-incarceration job and skills training available.

Vollen-Katz said with the election coming up, it’s important to make criminal justice reform a policy issue and not a political one, though she’s very interested the various candidates’ positions.

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