George Ryan: Don't label convicts forever

Two years after his release from prison, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan on Friday used a rare suburban appearance to call for legislation that would keep other convicts from being permanently labeled as felons.

Speaking at the Coalition to Reduce Recidivism's 12th annual luncheon in Waukegan, Ryan - a Republican who spent more than five years behind bars on corruption charges - said the "felon" tag is a "big deterrent" for someone looking for a job.

"I saw a lot of young men who have to wear that tag the rest of their lives," Ryan said, referring to his incarceration at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. "They've served their time, and that tag ought to be removed for the rest of their lives by law."

Ryan, 81, was warmly received by the roughly 150 people at the Milan Banquet Hall. Notable guests included state Sen. Terry Link, Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor, Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim and former U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider.

Ryan, of Kankakee, rarely has appeared before audiences since his release from prison in 2013, and he noted that early in his remarks.

"It's the first time I've really been out in public in a long time," said the former governor, who held that post from 1999 to 2003.

Ryan praised the Waukegan Township-based group for working to help men and women who've been convicted of crimes stay out of prison, calling it important work.

"I'm sure they don't want to go back," he said.

Ryan spoke for about 20 minutes. He spent most of that time recounting his controversial decisions to stop executions in Illinois and then to clear out the state's death row.

He talked about how he entered the governor's mansion as a supporter of capital punishment but began to swing the other way after several men on death row were found to be innocent and freed during his tenure.

Ryan said he was shocked to discover the number of exonerated death-row prisoners was higher than the number of prisoners executed in Illinois since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.

"The chances of an innocent man sitting on death row was 50/50," Ryan said. "It just wasn't right."

Ryan blamed bad defense lawyers, all-white juries that decided the fates of black defendants, jailhouse testimony and confessions coerced by police torture for the unusually high number of prisoners who'd wrongfully been convicted and sentenced to death.

"(There were) obvious miscarriages of justice," he said. "We were sending innocent people to death row to stay there for years in a system that absolutely didn't work."

Illinois lawmakers eventually abolished the death penalty in 2011. On Friday, Ryan pledged to dedicate the rest of his life to push for an end to capital punishment in the U.S. and around the world.

Ryan pointed out other nations that still execute prisoners generally are dictatorships, citing Iran and other countries as examples.

"The United States is in bad company," he said.

In closing, Ryan urged the lawmakers present to join him in pushing for an end to capital punishment.

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  Former Gov. George Ryan, right, with State Rep. Rita Mayfield during the 12th annual Coalition to Reduce Recidivism luncheon Friday in Waukegan. Ryan used the rare suburban appearance to talk about his opposition to the death penalty and to call for legislation that would keep other convicts from being permanently labeled as felons. Steve Lundy/
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