Racial Discrimination in Federal Sentencing: Evidence From Drug Mandatory Minimums

Cody Tuttle , University of Maryland

I test for racial discrimination in the criminal justice system by analyzing bunching in the distribution of crack-cocaine amounts used in federal sentencing. I compare cases sentenced before and after the Fair Sentencing Act, a 2010 law that changed the 10-year mandatory minimum threshold for crack-cocaine from 50g to 280g. Using data at multiple stages in the criminal justice process, I find the following: (1) after 2010, there is a sharp increase in the fraction of cases at 280g, the amount that now triggers the 10-year mandatory minimum; (2) this increase is disproportionately large for black and Hispanic offenders; (3) this increase is driven by prosecutors; (4) the fraction of cases at 280g falls once evidentiary standards become stricter; and (5) the racial disparity in the increase cannot be explained by differences in observable offender characteristics or other elements of the crime, but it can be almost entirely explained by a measure of state-level racial animus.

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 Presented in Session 143. Race/Ethnicity, Gender, and Incarceration