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Is the Effect of Mandatory Minimums Overblown?

In the controversies over sentencing law, few targets have drawn more ire from the soft-sentencing crowd than mandatory minimums.  There is even an entire organization dedicated to opposing them.  But do they have as big an impact as is widely believed?  David Bjerk has this article in the Journal of Legal Studies.  Here is the abstract:

The US federal mandatory minimum sentences are controversial not only because of the length of the mandatory sentences for even first-time offenders but also because eligibility quantities for crack cocaine crimes are small compared with those for other drug offenses. This paper shows that the impact of these mandatory minimums on sentencing is quite nuanced. A large fraction of mandatory-minimum-eligible offenders, particularly first timers, are able to avoid these mandatory minimums. Moreover, despite lower eligibility thresholds for crack-related offenses, a smaller fraction of those convicted of crack-related offenses are eligible for mandatory minimums relative to those convicted of other drug offenses. Furthermore, while being just eligible for a mandatory minimum increases sentence length on average, the impact is not uniform across drug offenses. Notably, sentences for crack offenders are generally sufficiently long such that, on average, sentences for crack offenders are not impacted by eligibility for a mandatory minimum.


Wonder if the NYTimes will cover. LOL.

Thanks for flagging this article, Kent, which I had not seen. I am eager to read the full piece, though, the abstract seems not to address the various ways MMs in the federal system tend to formally and informally push up lots of other sentences. In addition, if MMs are not really a big deal, why do so many prosecutors say they are so important?

I am no longer a prosecutor and I do not speak for them, or AUSA'S in particular, but I believe MM's are important for at least two reasons notwithstanding their relative infrequency in practice.

The lesser reason is that the threat of an MM is a major tool in inducing cooperation, which is indispensable in breaking down drug organizations.

The more important is the systemic value of preserving what is left of a rules-based system in the wake of Booker. The plain fact of the matter is that judges are human beings just like the rest of us, and human beings in a social setting behave better and more predictably with rules than without.

A third possible reason is that MM's. which were disfavored by Holder and Lynch, are about to make a comeback.

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