CHICAGO — Alton Mills, a former Chicago drug dealer who once faced a life sentence even his judge didn't think was fair, has become the center of a debate between President-elect Donald Trump's attorney general pick and an Illinois senator.
During his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) was questioned by his colleague Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) about his record on criminal justice matters. Though Sessions and Durbin agreed in the past about reducing sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine, Durbin used Mills' story to illustrate what he believes is a problem with Sessions' record on mandatory minimum sentences.
In 1994, Mills, then 25 years old, was convicted on drug charges. The drug suppliers and dealers convicted alongside Mills faced much lighter sentences, but because Mills had "two strikes" for relatively minor charges — for which he'd served probation — the judge was forced to give Mills a life sentence, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Even the judge didn't think Mills' crime fit the required sentence, according to reports from the time.
"If I were free to sentence [Mills] ... it would be to something other than life," the judge said at the time, according to a letter Durbin wrote to President Barack Obama when asking the president to commute Mills' sentence.
It wasn't until 2015 that Mills' sentence was commuted by Obama. At the time, Durbin explained, Sessions slammed Obama's choice to commute Mills, and denied the existence of low-level, non violent offenders in the criminal justice system.
During the Tuesday confirmation hearing, Durbin asked if Sessions should be trusted with "the most important criminal prosecution office in America" given his denial of such offenders in federal and local police custody.
Sessions fired back that he went against his own party to work with Durbin on changing unfair mandatory minimum laws for drug offenders, but acknowledged they disagreed on whether the law should be applied retroactively for people in prison under the harsh policy. Ultimately, Sessions said, courts decided the law would be applied retroactively. But Durbin said thousands of people remain in prison due to outdated sentencing guidelines.
Mills and Durbin have pushed for reforms to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Mills even joined Durbin at a February 2016 City Club of Chicago speech to talk about mandatory life sentences.
"Alton acknowledges that he made mistakes and needed to be rehabilitated in prison, but a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense is wrong," Durbin wrote on Facebook at the time.