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Portable Minimalism in Sentencing Politics

14 Pages Posted: 31 May 2011  

Ronald F. Wright

Wake Forest University - School of Law

Date Written: September 22, 2011


In this response to Erik Luna and Paul Cassell’s article, Mandatory Minimalism, 32 Cardozo L. Rev. 1 (2010), I argue that the authors’ theory of federal crime legislation is misplaced – in the literal sense that it is directed to the wrong place. A minimalist strategy of finding the available legislative consensus for small reforms will usually not work in the federal legislative process. Any change to federal crime legislation faces many procedural barriers, most prominent among them the use of the filibuster in the Senate. Given this institutional landscape, it is not surprising that Congress hardly ever repeals mandatory minimum statutes. Institutional rules, rather than individual views of legislators, produced this result in the past and will dominate efforts to repeal these laws in the future. The legislative process in many states, however, is not so oriented towards inaction. One can point to a larger stockpile of repealed mandatory minimums at the state level.

The core issue, then, is the portability of minimalism. The social science foundations of the theory posit behavioral rules for individuals, but individuals work within particular institutions, with their particular decision rules and traditions. A theory about individual action, such as minimalism, does offer insights, but it must be filtered through the institutional lenses of the relevant jurisdiction.

Suggested Citation

Wright, Ronald F., Portable Minimalism in Sentencing Politics (September 22, 2011). Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 32, 2011; Wake Forest Univ. Legal Studies Paper No. 1853322. Available at SSRN: or

Ronald F. Wright (Contact Author)

Wake Forest University - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 7206
Winston-Salem, NC 27109
United States
336-758-5727 (Phone)
336-758-4496 (Fax)

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