Momentum builds for pardon of Peoria man who served 15 years for drug offense
Jason Spyres was arrested on drug charges nearly 20 years ago. In the years since, he’s been on a path of personal success and growth. A pardon from Gov. Bruce Rauner should follow.
This fall, Peoria resident Jason Spyres starts classes at Stanford University in California on a full-ride engineering scholarship. That fact alone shows he’s one of Illinois’ brightest and hardest working.
In admitting Spyres, Stanford acknowledged those virtues. But as he pursues his studies in California this year, he’ll be patiently waiting for the same recognition from Illinois.
This August, before leaving for school, Spyres applied for a gubernatorial pardon for decades-old mistakes the state of Illinois has yet to let go.
He’s not a typical incoming freshman to a university. He is 36 years old.
When he was 19 years old, he was arrested for selling cannabis, and until recently, the state of Illinois had kept him out of society for it. He served 15 years of a 30-year prison sentence at the Taylorville Correctional Center and was slapped with more than $260,000 in fines. Now, with a record of model behavior and backing from law enforcement officials and a state lawmaker, he is asking for forgiveness.
“If I could go back, I’d slap myself and say ‘grow up,’” Spyres said. “But I can’t. All I can do is move forward, and do the best I can to help others see the mistakes I made before enduring the same consequences that I did.”
As part of his personal petition to Gov. Bruce Rauner, state Rep. Allen Skillicorn, R-Crystal Lake, Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell and Bartonville Police Chief Brian Fengel all wrote letters to the governor recommending Spyres for a pardon. Peoria businessman Sean Kenny, who employed Spyres at Goldie’s Pizza & Slots in Peoria, and retired correctional officer George Atterberry, who became acquainted with Spyres while he was incarcerated, also petitioned the governor recommending his pardon.
“I have read [Jason’s] petition for a pardon and relief from fines, and believe granting his request is in the best interest of our state,” Skillicorn wrote in his letter. “He served almost 15 years in prison and, by all appearances, has learned his lesson. Moreover, he is civic-minded and is using his time and resources to help others in his position come to the perspective he now has.”
While Spyres’ personal growth and success, as well as backing from elected and law enforcement officials, should make his case a slam-dunk, Illinois’ outlook on criminal justice provides no guarantees.
Illinois did not even afford Spyres the same higher education opportunity Stanford gave him. If he were to go to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, he would need to be on academic and disciplinary probation for his entire tenure.
“I got into U of I with an asterisk,” Spyres said. “They said ‘you’re going to be on academic and disciplinary probation from the first day until you graduate, and it will never come off your record.’”
“I got out of prison and all of my counselors told me, ‘Jason, you get out there and you make the life you told me you were going to make. We’re so proud’ … So I get three years of parole done in seven months, and I can finally say the number K99397 has no tie to me. It’s not on a piece of paper tied to who I am.”
“And U of I wants me to take that back … And remind myself of it everyday.”
Spyres knows he made a mistake. In 2001, his mother sent him 38 pounds of cannabis from Red Bluff, California, to Spyres’ then-home in Decatur. According to court documents, a Staples employee in Red Bluff became suspicious of the package when Spyres’ mother dropped it off in poor condition and had a nervous demeanor. The package was turned over to law enforcement and shipped to the Decatur Police Department. An undercover police officer posing as a UPS deliveryman then brought it to Spyres’ home, began searching his home pursuant to a warrant and found the UPS tracking number matching the package.
Spyres was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and racked up fines nearly impossible to pay back. He makes no excuses for his behavior, but hopes the state agrees that it’s time to turn the page.
“I’m $268,000 in debt because I sold pot when I was 19 and 20,” Spyres said. “You can say all day you know what it’s like for somebody when they get out [of prison] and try to do the right thing. Tell me you know what it’s like when you have debt collectors calling you trying to take your paycheck, and it’s going to take 18 years of every penny you earn after taxes to pay off your fine.”
Spyres’ sentence and fine were as harsh as they were due to Illinois’ “Class X” classification for large possessions of cannabis. A Class X classification – which includes possessing more than 5,000 grams of cannabis with intent to deliver – is among the state’s most severe, short of first-degree murder. Class X felonies carry a mandatory sentence of between six to 30 years in prison, and those convicted are not eligible for probation.
Among the other charges under Class X: kidnapping, battery with a firearm, battery of a child, home invasion, aggravated criminal sexual assault, predatory criminal sexual assault, armed robbery, vehicle hijacking and arson.
In Illinois, nearly half of offenders released from prison each year will return within three years. But for an ex-offender who finds work within a year after release from prison, there is just a 16 percent chance of recidivating, according to a study by the Safer Foundation.
Spyres fortunately found work at Goldie’s Pizza & Slots, which helped him get on a positive track. That’s not only a win for him. But an ex-offender finding work is a win for all Illinoisans.
Each time an ex-offender reoffends and ends up back behind bars, it costs the state approximately $151,662 on average, according to a 2018 report by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council. Those costs add up in arrests, trials, court proceedings, incarceration and supervision; as well as costs for victims who have been deprived of property, incurred medical expenses, lost wages, and endured pain and suffering; and indirect costs in foregone economic activity.
The report estimates that if Illinois’ recidivism rate stays about the same over the next five years, taxpayers will pay more than $13 billion in the aforementioned costs. On the flip side, with a reduction in recidivism of just 1 percent, Illinois would save $90.1 million in prison, court and policing costs over nine years. If the recidivism rate fell by 5 percent, these savings would jump to nearly $450.7 million over nine years, along with $75.5 million in avoided economic losses and $224.1 million in victimization costs not incurred.
Lawmakers have made some progress: In 2016, Rauner signed into law a bill that removed barriers for ex-offenders in the fields of barbering, cosmetology, esthetics, hair braiding, nail services, roofing and funeral service, unless the crime is directly related to the occupation.
Also in 2016, Rauner signed into law a bill that decriminalized small amounts of marijuana – up to 10 grams – making it instead punishable by a fine of between $100 and $200. While small, these reforms are steps forward for Illinois’ criminal justice system.
Now, with the stroke of a pen, Rauner could make a decision that would directly improve the life of an Illinoisan who already paid his debt to society. Jason Spyres is a model citizen and an inspirational success story. In the future, he could be a permanent Illinoisan once again – something he hopes for after Stanford – and granting forgiveness would be an ideal way to welcome him back.
“Illinois is my home state,” Spyres said. “I have to know that I made this place better. The only thing I have to point to my actions in Illinois is that I went to prison. I kind of wanted to go to U of I to say that I went to Illinois’ flagship campus and I made something of myself.”
“I’m really just trying to fix the system, and that’s why I want to come back.”
With the humility of having gone through the system, and a track record of overcoming past setbacks, the state might benefit from more Illinoisans like Spyres.