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FreedomWorks recently announced the launch of the American Freedom Initiative (AFI), a collaboration headed by former acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker. This project aims to help relieve injustices committed against Americans under the criminal justice system and the regulatory state. As part of this project, we will shine a spotlight on some of the individuals the AFI has identified under its National Pardon Project as being particularly hard hit by unjustly harsh criminal sentences for non-violent crimes.
Rufus Rochell was convicted back in 1988 for attempting to distribute crack cocaine. Thanks in large part to the massive disparity that existed in sentencing between powder cocaine and crack cocaine, Rochell was sentenced to 40 years in prison. During the intervening 32 years in federal prison, he established himself as a model prisoner, with zero infractions.
Rochell got some publicity after one of the friends he has mentored behind bars, Conrad Black, received a pardon from President Trump, but Rochell awaits a similar boon. He has, finally, at least been released into home confinement because of an effort to facilitate the compassionate release of older prisoners because of the spread of COVID-19 within prisons.
Nevertheless, Rochell remains ineligible for full release and freedom until 2023, thanks to the outdated sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine that was in law at the time of his conviction. Because crack cocaine was both cheaper and easier to distribute than powder cocaine, when it became widely available in the early 1980s it quickly became the scourge of lower-income communities - especially inner-city minority communities. In response, Congress passed the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established that possession and distribution of just 5 grams of crack cocaine would carry the same mandatory minimum sentence as for 500 grams of powder cocaine - a 100:1 ratio.
These new sentencing guidelines were, notably, passed against the advice of the newly-established US Sentencing Commission, which noted that there was no factual justification for such a discrepancy in punishments. The predictable result was large numbers of small-time street dealers being handed sentences like Rochell’s - sentences often measured by decades. This discrepancy, which very disproportionately affected minority communities, was partially addressed by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which shrunk the ratio to 18:1. But that law didn’t apply retroactively, thus leaving thousands of prisoners from earlier years in prison even though they would have been eligible for release if sentenced under the new law.
The First Step Act of 2018 finally addressed this disparity by making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. Unfortunately, a backlog in processing First Sentence Act sentence reductions has meant that Rochell has not yet benefited from the sentence reduction that ought to set him free.
Moreover, Rufus has spent much of his time while incarcerated helping others. He has taken responsibility for his actions and expressed remorse, and he helps counsel other prisoners to likewise accept responsibility in order to grow and move on. He has expressed a desire to work with youth to help them avoid his mistakes, should he win his freedom. He has also organized a number of fundraisers among his fellow prisoners that have raised thousands of dollars for various charitable causes, in spite of how little money many prisoners have to donate.
Rather than wait months or years more for the slow wheels of justice to turn, a model prisoner with Rochell’s good attitude, support network, and demonstrated recognizance and rehabilitation should be an obvious candidate for immediate clemency.