Charging Leniency and Federal Sentences

79 Pages Posted: 27 Mar 2020 Last revised: 7 May 2024

Date Written: September 10, 2020


For decades, advocates and observers have lambasted mandatory minimum sentencing laws, especially for drug crimes. 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 who had minimal prior criminal records. This paper finds that federal prosecutors meaningfully complied with the charging policy, but this compliance did not translate into meaningful sentencing reductions for the defendants the policy sought to help. The paper suggests that these results can be explained by the Holder reform’s failure to account for mandatory minimum entrenchment in federal criminal law, policy, and practice. The paper does find meaningful sentencing effects for one subset of the defendant population: ineligible defendants that are prosecuted alongside an eligible co-defendant received sentences that were on average around five months shorter after the reform. The findings suggest this group of ineligible defendants benefitted from spillover effects and reduced cooperation by eligible defendants with whom they were prosecuted.

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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