Carter Phillips (JD ‘77) has a long and storied history with Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. Not only is he one of the most engaged alumni of the Law School, he is also one of the school’s ...
By Amy Weiss
In 1994, 25-year-old Alton Mills was sentenced to life in federal prison without parole by a judge who had no choice. More than two decades later, after all his appeals had failed, he was given a second chance.
Alton Mills, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, was a promising high school football player with dreams of going pro. But when a knee injury during a game in 1984 took away his shot at a college career, his future took a turn: Mills struggled to find work after graduating high school, so from 1991 to 1993, he worked as a low-level courier carrying crack and cocaine.
“I hung out with a bunch of goldfishes that was dealing with some sharks, and the sharks caught the goldfishes up and we were the ones that ended up going to prison,” Mills said in a recent interview for MSNBC’s PoliticsNation with Reverend Al Sharpton.
In 1992, Mills was arrested twice for possession of less than five grams of crack cocaine. In both instances, he received probation from the State of Illinois. The following year, he was arrested on federal conspiracy charges as part of a larger sting targeting the ringleaders and suppliers of the operation he was involved in. Prosecutors filed a Section 851 enhancement, which meant that Mills’s previous two convictions would count against him in sentencing.
Mills was convicted, and, even though higher-ranking members of his drug operation received lesser sentences, District Court Judge Marvin Aspen (JD ’58) had no choice but to sentence him to life in prison without parole. The two prior possession charges counted against Mills, and laws at the time mandated a life sentence for the “third strike,” even though he had never before spent a single day in prison.
At the time of the 1994 sentencing, Aspen told the courtroom that this application of the sentencing guidelines was “cruel and unusual” and said he would have sentenced Mills to “something other than life.”
Aspen — for whom Aspen Hall at the Law School is named — still feels that way today.
“I had been a critic of the sentencing guidelines when they were first enacted,” he says. “They were sold to the public, to law enforcement, and to the courts on the notion that disparities in sentencing would disappear, that there would be honesty in sentencing, and that everyone involved in a particular criminal activity would be punished proportionally with other people involved in that activity. I think we can see by this case how farcical that notion is in its application at times.”
“The problem I saw right from the beginning is that discretion never goes away in sentencing,” Aspen explains. “It was shifted away from the court, to prosecutors, who have discretion in how they charge.”
A Chance for Clemency
Two decades after Aspen sentenced Mills to life in prison, the Obama administration announced a clemency initiative for federal inmates. They were especially interested in non-violent, low-level offenders like Mills who were sentenced at the height of the war on drugs and would likely receive substantially lower sentences today.
Kimberly-Claire Seymour (JD-LLM IHR ’16) was doing multiple practicums and externships with the Federal Defenders Program in Chicago in 2014 and 2015, as requests from inmates and their families poured in.
“The team here reviewed hundreds of cases that came from our district, and pulled out a select few folks who were serving the longest terms of incarceration and whose circumstances were particularly shocking,” she says. “Alton Mills was one of those individuals.”
The Federal Defenders prepared Mills’s clemency application, which included a letter of support from Judge Aspen to President Obama. In December 2015, President Obama commuted Mills’s sentence and he was released in early 2016, after spending 22 years behind bars.
“I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong and change your life for the better,” President Obama wrote in a letter informing Mills he was commuting his sentence. “So good luck, and Godspeed.”
Seymour, who received a Jay A. Pritzker Fellowship that allowed her to work for the Federal Defenders upon graduating and has since been hired as a staff attorney, continued to work on Mills’s case, finding there was much to do even after his release.
“As someone who had spent over two decades in federal prison, [Mills] was struggling to adjust to day-to-day life,” she says. “He couldn’t get a driver’s license for months because he had unpaid parking tickets from twenty years ago, and those had accrued interest. So we were fighting with the city to figure out his payment plan and how he could get his driver’s license back, making sure he’s getting into job training programs. We got such a wonderful, rare result for him, but the challenges continued and were still very significant for him after his release. […] It’s been really incredible seeing how Alton has returned to the world as a free man, and seeing his humanity restored and trying to get back on his feet and establish a life with his family.”
Last year, Mills secured a job detailing buses overnight with the Chicago Transportation Authority (CTA)’s Second Chance Program, an initiative aimed at offering full-time employment and training for future careers for individuals facing barriers to employment. Mills hopes to become a certified diesel mechanic for the CTA.
Mandatory Minimums Face Uncertain Future
While the mandatory sentencing practices Mills was subjected to have changed — most significantly via a 2013 Department of Justice (DOJ) memo from Attorney General Eric Holder — criminal justice reform advocates feel there is much more to be done and fear the current administration intends to undo some of the progress that has been made.
“We expect to see a resurgence of these mandatory sentencing schemes that trap in folks [that] Congress really didn’t intend to punish in these very draconian ways,” says Seymour, referring specifically to a recent memo from Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversing the 2013 Holder memo.
Since his release, Mills has been a vocal and visible advocate for sentencing reform. He has appeared multiple times in Chicago and on the Hill with Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) — a key proponent of Mills’s clemency petition — in support of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, legislation sponsored by Senator Durbin that would grant judges greater flexibility in sentencing. Mills was also a guest of Senator Durbin’s at the confirmation hearing for Sessions, as Durbin questioned the incoming Attorney General and challenged his views on mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders.
“When I was arrested, I was a young father raising a 19-month old daughter,” Mills wrote in a 2016 op-ed in The Hill. “Next year, I will watch my daughter walk across the stage at her college graduation. If it were not for the commutation of my sentence by President Obama last year, I would ultimately die in prison for mistakes I made as an impressionable young man. […] There are many others like me still incarcerated who deserve a second chance too.”
Seeing Mills return to his family and begin a life outside of prison has been gratifying for Aspen as well.
“How often does a judge get a chance to correct or change something that he or she had to do but knew was the wrong resolution of a legal matter?”
Aspen hopes lawmakers can learn how important judicial discretion in sentencing is from cases like this one. “If Mr. Mills does what I think he’s going to do, I think five years from now you’ll see he has not committed any crimes, he’ll be working regularly, he’ll be interacting with his family, and he’ll be a role model for a lot of people who have come out of the penitentiary with the good attitude that he has,” Aspen says. “Hopefully it will give legislators a reaffirmation that the mandatory guidelines were a mistake and that every case is different. There are so many nuances in a sentence that you cannot cover no matter how intricate your guidelines are.”
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