Alton was 25 years old when he received a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for conspiracy to traffic crack and powder cocaine, possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, and use of a telephone to commit a drug crime. President Obama commuted Alton’s sentence on December 18, 2015, and he was released in 2016.
“Alton has now been incarcerated for 22 years—he has lived inside the federal prison system for almost as long as he lived outside of it.”
Alton Mills grew up in a rough part of Chicago, but he excelled at a time when many of his peers were struggling—he was a promising high school football star who had the support of a strong, loving two-parent household. But his life began to unravel in 1984, when Alton took a vicious hit to the knee during a game. The resulting injury was serious enough to end his football career before it even started. “That changed my whole outlook on life,” Alton says.
The injury not only killed his dream of playing college, and perhaps one day professional football, but made him vulnerable on the streets. In his neighborhood at that time, he says, participating in sports was one of the few things that allowed young men a “pass” on being recruited into the drug trade. “There was a major drug war going on,” he says. “There were only three things you could do: play sports, be a mechanic, or sell drugs.”
Alton says that once the shield of sports was gone from his life, he tried to stay above the fray for as long as he could. He worked for a while, but eventually lost his job and began associating with a bad crowd, in part for his own protection.
He eventually joined a drug ring, and, from 1991 to 1993, carried crack and cocaine for the group’s leader. “I was just out there in the street to make money to survive,” Alton says of that time in his life. In reality, Alton made just $300 per week, less than minimum wage, as a street-level drug courier. He ran into trouble twice while acting as a courier: he was convicted in July of 1992, and again in December of 1992, for simple possession of crack cocaine— less than 5 grams in both instances. He received probation both times.
On Sept. 8, 1993, Alton was arrested a third time, and charged with conspiracy to traffic crack and powder cocaine, possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, and use of a telephone to commit a drug crime. The day Alton was arrested, prosecutors filed an enhancement that would force the judge to give him a mandatory life sentence upon his conviction.
In the federal court system, a third drug offense can trigger a mandatory life sentence. While this provision is meant to punish serious criminals, more often it subjects low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, such as Alton, to unconscionable prison terms. Alton believes the prosecution was eager to file an enhancement because they thought he might have information about the conspiracy’s leadership, and that the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison might scare him into cooperating.
Although Alton was convicted on all charges, U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen thought a life sentence was too harsh, calling it “cruel and unusual” punishment. But, with no discretion in the matter, he was forced to impose the life sentence, even though Alton’s prior convictions hadn’t been serious enough to merit prison time, and had been committed during the course of the federal conspiracy.
Judge Aspen criticized the harsh, uniform sentences he was required to impose:
“The sad thing, I think, for all of us to reflect upon, was that the sentencing guidelines were sold to the public and to law enforcement and to the courts on the notion that disparity in sentencing would disappear and that there would be honesty in sentencing, in that everyone involved in a particular criminal activity would be punished proportionally with other people involved in that activity. And I think we can see by this case how farcical that notion is . . . in its application at times.”
On July 14, 1994, Alton, who had never spent a single day of his life in prison, was sentenced to life without parole.
The government did not seek to enhance the sentence of the leader of the conspiracy, who will be released in 2019. And, according to a 1994 Chicago Tribune article, the suppliers in the case—two middle-aged men— received relatively light sentences because they pleaded guilty and testified against the young men to whom they provided drugs.
Alton has now been incarcerated for 22 years—he has lived inside the federal prison system for almost as long as he lived outside of it. Presidential clemency is currently his only hope for release. Alton has spent the last two decades bettering himself. He has taken health and nutrition classes, gained skills in mechanics and auto repair, and even returned to the football field, as an official. He counts receiving a certification as a referee as among his greatest achievements while in prison. He is ready to be a productive member of society.
“I take all of those classes [not only because] I like them, but because if I get back to society and get to spend time with [young people], I want to explain to them the mistakes I’ve made. Because the place where I am now is no place to be.”
Alton says he has remained in close contact with his father and his mother, who keeps him up-to-date on family news via letter and pictures. “She always sends me pictures; of nieces, nephews, young cousins—a lot of them weren’t even born [when I went in], but I’ve got a bunch of pictures of them.”
He also says he has managed to stay close to his daughters, including his youngest, who was just 19 months old when he went to prison. She will graduate nursing school next year, and it is Alton’s dream to receive a presidential commutation and make it home in time to see her walk across the stage and receive her diploma.
“If I never went to the streets who knows what I’d be doing,” he says. “But I know I’m a better person now. I’ve learned from my mistakes.”
The Facts: Alton Mills
Sentence: Life (commuted in 2015)
Offense: Conspiring to traffic crack and powder cocaine; possessing with intent to distribute crack cocaine; and using a telephone to commit a drug crime
Priors: Alton was convicted of simple possession of crack twice—in July 1992 and December 1992. Both priors happened during the federal drug conspiracy and he received and successfully completed probation both times
Year sentenced: 1994
Age at sentencing: 25