Charging Leniency and Federal Sentences

77 Pages Posted: 27 Mar 2020 Last revised: 24 Mar 2022

Date Written: September 10, 2020


For decades, advocates and observers have lambasted mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder instructed all federal prosecutors to stop charging mandatory minimums against defendants charged with low-level, nonviolent drug trafficking crimes. This paper finds evidence of meaningful compliance with the charging policy that did not fully translate into sentencing reductions for defendants the policy sought to help. The paper suggests that these results can be understood by the Holder reform’s failure to account for mandatory minimum entrenchment in federal criminal law, policy, and practice and the extent to which it was redundant of pre-existing opportunities for defendants to avoid mandatory minimums. The paper does find meaningful sentencing effects for two subsets of the defendant population: defendants convicted of drug offenses involving cocaine base and ineligible defendants that are prosecuted alongside an eligible co-defendant.

Keywords: sentencing, mandatory minimums, drug crime, prosecutor

JEL Classification: K14, K42

Suggested Citation

Didwania, Stephanie Holmes, Charging Leniency and Federal Sentences (September 10, 2020). Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research # 1746, Available at SSRN: or

Stephanie Holmes Didwania (Contact Author)

Northwestern Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

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