In 1994, I was sentenced to die in prison. I was 24 years old. I was a high-school graduate from a two-parent family who grew up on Chicago’s Southside. My mother was a nurse. My father worked for 40 years at a local grocery store before he retired. In my early 20s, I fell in with the wrong crowd.  For two years, I worked as a drug runner and delivered crack cocaine and money for the drug ring’s leader. I tried to make ends meet, earning only $300 a week.

There are four days in my life that are the most important to my eventual life sentence: On two of those days, I received state probation for possessing less than 5 grams of crack. On another day, I was arrested, taken to federal court and told that prosecutors used my two probation sentences for crack possession to seek a mandatory life sentence against me. On my last day in federal court, I stood before the judge who reluctantly sentenced me to life. The judge told me my life sentence was “farcical” and “cruel and unusual,” but his hands were tied.  Should a person who never spent a day behind bars be sentenced to life in prison for being a low-level drug runner?  

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A first time non-violent drug offender tried in federal court could face a hefty mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in prison. If that person has a prior drug conviction and the prosecutor files a single sheet of paper called a “Section 851 Enhancement,” the sentence will double from ten to twenty years.  Worse yet, as happened to me, if that person has two prior drug convictions – even for simple possession of a very small amount of drugs – and the prosecutor files an 851 enhancement, the sentence jumps from 10 years to life in prison. There is no parole in the federal system, so a person with a life sentence will ultimately die in prison. The 851 enhancement gives prosecutors – not judges – the sole power to decide whether or not someone will be condemned to die in prison. The 851 enhancement also gives prosecutors – not judges – the sole power to decide whether America will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to lock someone like me up for the rest of their life.

I understand that harsh drug laws were supposed to keep violent and serious repeat drug offenders off the streets. That did not happen in my case. I am not a violent person or serious repeat drug offender. At my sentencing, even the prosecutor said “the thrust of the evidence against Mills was that Mills did whatever [the ring’s leader] told him to do.” Even worse, the drug kingpins who testified against me were released over a decade ago, having only served ten years. The drug ring’s leader will be released in three years, as will the group’s second in command.  I was the least responsible person in the group yet the one sentenced to the longest prison term. Was America safer with me locked away, while the kingpins and ringleaders gain their freedom?

I am excited that bipartisan legislation – the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act – has been introduced to help others like me facing life sentences for low-level drug offenses. Under this legislation, I could have asked the judge to consider my particular circumstances and reduce my life sentence down to 25 years. A sentence of 25 years is still a long time – but hope for a second chance would mean so much to many men and women still locked away. Although receiving clemency is incredible, legislative reform is critical because it will impact far greater numbers of deserving people.

When I was arrested, I was a young father raising a 19-month old daughter. 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. I am someone who would benefit from legislative sentencing reform had my sentence not been commuted. There are many others like me still incarcerated who deserve a second chance too.


Alton D. Mills is from Chicago. His life sentence was commuted last year by President Obama.