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.