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Student seeks pardon, highlights excessive fines barrier to rehabilitation

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (Illinois News Network) -- An Illinois man attending Stanford University in California with a full scholarship hopes the support he has from various officials will amplify his request for a pardon from the governor while he continues to fight against what he says are excessive fines in the criminal justice system.

Typically, people go to college free of debt. The debt comes from borrowing money for years to pay for college. Jason Spyres, 36, is starting college with $265,000 in debt. That’s because he was convicted of possession of 38 pounds of marijuana. He served 15 years in prison for the offense.

After getting out, he applied to Stanford and got a full scholarship starting this semester.

Spyres now speaks publicly about his crimes and the moral importance of proper rehabilitation. He said since then he’s been encouraged by several members of the law enforcement community to request a governor’s pardon.

“People might think I’m full of it, [but] filing [for] a pardon was not my idea,” Spyres said. “I’m for it. I really want it.”

After speaking at an event, Spyres said he was approached by Bartonville Police Chief Brian Fengal, who encouraged Spyres to request a pardon.

“Go through the paperwork and the necessary steps to do that,” Fengel recalled telling Spyres. “He said, ‘are you serious?’ and I said, ‘why don’t you try? … There’s two things that can happen. Either they’ll say 'yes' or they’ll say 'no.’”

Spyres’ first clemency request in 2009 went unanswered by former Gov. Pat Quinn until Gov. Bruce Rauner denied it shortly after taking office in 2015. Spyres has since refiled the necessary paperwork for a pardon, including paying to get fingerprinted.

“Never in my life did I think I’d willingly go down to get fingerprinted,” Spyres said.

From that point, Spyres said Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell called him to encourage him to follow through with the process. Spyres provided a letter from Asbell that calls Spyres “a perfect example of a person who is succeeding post incarceration.”

“When he was incarcerated, he invested in himself through education,” Asbell wrote. “Jason is a role model for others and deserves a second chance where he can continue his goals in engineering, helping others, helping our nation.”

Spyres said while his full ride to Stanford will cover his bachelor's degree, he’d likely have to pay to get a master’s degree. With his record, and his fines having been turned over to collections, his ability to get student loans would be unlikely, or come with high interest rates.

Spyres said he hopes Rauner can see that a clean slate is important for rehabilitation, even if his pardon isn’t accepted.

“Even if I can’t go on to get the masters because I can’t get the graduate loans, or I can’t get the private loans due to my debt being ruined, I’m going to be OK in life,” Spyres said. “Please remember that other people might need that help more than me.”

Spyres also provided a letter from George Atterberry, a retired correctional officer at the Illinois Department of Corrections.

“As of this writing, I have known and observed Jason for two decades and I have seen that he has consistently bettered himself and now he is accepted at Stanford University,” Atterberry wrote. “He is one of the most civic-minded people that I know, and I feel his value will be felt in society on a large scale. It is with no hesitation that I respectfully recommend to the Honorable Bruce Rauner and Illinois Prison Review Board that Jason Alan Spyres be Pardoned.”

Spyres also provided letters from State Rep. Allen Skillicorn, R-East Dundee, E. Anthony White, a professor from Illinois Central College, and his former employer, Sean Kenny of Kenny’s Westside Pub.

Spyres said punishment is necessary, but hefty fines don’t help rehabilitation.

“And while I believe consequences are necessary, I also believe consequences need to be seen in the eyes of how are we going to help this person be restored to useful citizenship,” Spyres said. “I don’t think there’s a person alive who thinks me paying $268,000 in fines is going to help me be a more successful citizen.”

Fengel said Spyres’ story is important when talking about rehabilitation.

“Because it affects your housing, it affects any job prospects you may have, it affected him getting into school,” Fengel said.

Spyres said he hopes Rauner can see a clean slate is important for rehabilitation.