Pardon gives Ammons 'window of hope'

 

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Aaron Ammons, a former drug user with a felony conviction who went on to become a community activist and help run his wife's successful political campaign, received a pardon and expungement of his criminal record this week.

The action came quietly on Monday, Gov. Pat Quinn's last day in office and two days before Carol Ammons was to be sworn in today as a state representative for the 103rd district. Quinn supported Carol Ammons during her race, attending a summer fundraiser for her.

With a pardon and expungement, Ammons is now clear to do things he could not have done before, from coaching basketball to serving on city council.

Carol Ammons resigned from her seat on the council on Friday, and Aaron Ammons said he plans to apply for his wife's seat.

He filed the paperwork for the pardon on Jan. 2. On Monday, aware that was the last day it could happen, Ammons was "on pins and needles." He was notified of the news Monday by The News-Gazette, which obtained a list of Quinn's last-minute pardons.

Ammons said he was thankful Quinn "used his power to give me this opportunity, to open this window of hope."

"I hope the new governor looks closely at some of these executive commutations and pardons on his desk. There are a lot of good people out there who have changed their lives and deserve a second chance," Ammons said.

The 43-year-old Ammons said his message to people who have convictions in their backgrounds is "it's not the end of the road for them."

Ammons grew up in the Dobbins Downs neighborhood in Champaign. He attended Central High School, where he was ran track and was a starting guard on the basketball team. After graduating from Central, he attended Parkland College, where he played basketball for Tom Cooper. After a while, he dropped out.

Around 1991, he was introduced to a popular drug at that time — marijuana laced with crack cocaine. He was 20 years old. He developed an addiction and eventually started selling drugs to support his habit. His arrests around that time revolved around his involvement with drugs.

He was picked up for drug possession and selling drugs and violated his probation when he was caught with marijuana and heroin.

Ammons spent about seven to eight years addicted to drugs. He participated in some outpatient therapy, but admits he was not committed to the process at the time.

Then he hit "rock bottom" while living with an uncle in Chicago. He remembers understanding why some people committed suicide. "I was that low," he said.

Ammons started reading — he dived into all sorts of books on African American history and religious texts like the Bible and the Koran — and writing poetry. Poetry, he said, was his therapist. Writing it allowed him to share his pain, frustration, shame and guilt.

"I decided not to give up on myself and my life," he said.

He moved back to Champaign and started working at a gas station, where he struck up a conversation with a customer, who invited him to work at Chanute Transition Center in Rantoul. The center provided a place for youth transitioning from juvenile detention back to society. It was at Chanute, around 1999, where he met his future wife.

He continued to work on himself, on writing and he made the commitment to stop using drugs.

When the center closed, Ammons, at the suggestion of a friend, took the civil service exam and applied to work as a building service worker at the University of Illinois. A law student developed an outline for him, which he taped onto the refrigerator. It listed his steps to recovery, such as finding a job and taking classes again. (He's taken courses through Eastern Illinois University's bachelor's degree in general studies and plans to resume courses after taking a break to focus on his wife's campaign.)

On Tuesday, he celebrated his 14th year working at the UI. He's become an active member of Service Employees International Union Local 73.

Among the many organizations he's been involved with locally, Ammons started Citizens with Conviction, a group that advocates for people with felonies in their background. The vision for the group is "to let people see they can, with the right level of conviction and commitment, overcome barriers," he said.

He and Carol co-founded CU Citizens for Peace and Justice, a group that opposes expansion of the county jail and police use of Tasers. He has chaired the Citizens Advisory Commission, which examined the racial composition of juries. He has emceed at the S.P.E,A,K. (Song, Poetry, Expression, Art and Knowledge) Cafe at Krannert Art Museum, a regular open-mike event open to students and community members. He's published poetry.

But with a felony conviction in his background, he often hit roadblocks. To obtain the pardon, he gathered documents from the Champaign County state's attorney's office and presiding judge. He wrote a detailed narrative of his life and described his activities in recent years and included clips from articles about his involvement in different groups and issues, to show "I really changed my life, and am having a positive influence on my community."

"I wanted to convey to everybody else, to continue to serve your community, to volunteer, to serve on boards and commissions, keep doing things in your community that show your dedication and recommitment to being a productive citizen," he said.

As for his next step, Ammons said he would like to serve on city council.

Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said she has received two applications so far. Now that he has received the governor's pardon, Aaron Ammons will be the third.

"Apparently, you can serve on the county board even if you have a felony conviction, but you can't serve on city councils if you have a felony conviction. That is my understanding of state law," Prussing said.

Prussing said she has 60 days to appoint a successor, and her appointment would need to be ratified by the council.

"I nominate people and they need to be voted on by the council," Prussing said, adding that she welcomes more applicants and plans to interview some of them.

Staff writer Tim Mitchell contributed to this report.