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Mandatory Minimum Reforms, Sentencing, and Racial-Ethnic Disparities

  • Terry-Ann Craigie and Mariyana Zapryanova EMAIL logo


Over the last 20 years, numerous states and the federal government enacted mandatory minimum reforms, especially for drug offenses. Yet little is known about how effective these reforms have been at the state-level in lowering drug sentences. Using quasi-experimental methods and administrative data, this study evaluates the impact of state-level mandatory minimum reforms on drug sentences and their concomitant racial-ethnic disparities. We find that state-level mandatory minimum reforms do not lower drug sentences in general or change racial-ethnic disparities statistically significantly. These findings suggest that the profound racial-ethnic bias sparked by state-level mandatory minimums are not fully ameliorated by subsequent state-level reforms.

JEL codes: K14; K42

Corresponding author: Mariyana Zapryanova, Department of Economics, Smith College, Northampton, USA, E-mail:

Funding source: Brown University

Award Identifier / Grant number: Unassigned


We thank the editor and two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions, which greatly improved our paper. We also want thank participants at the 2020 Eastern Economic Association Conference in Boston, MA for comments and suggestions on the early version of this paper.

  1. Research funding: We are grateful to the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown University, which receives funding from the NIH (P2C HD041020), for general support.

Appendix A
Table A1:

State criminal-law changes.

State Date Type of Drug Crimes Coverage Consistent Repeal
(1) (2) (x) (3) (4)
Alabama 2007–2015
Alaska 2005–2014
Arizona 2000–2015
Arkansas 3/22/2011 Drug possession
California 2000–2015 Yes
Colorado 2000–2015 Yes
Connecticut 7/11/2005 Drug (non-violent)
Delaware 6/3/2003 All 2002–2014 Yes
D.C. 2009–2015
Florida 7/1/2014 Drug trafficking 2000–2015
Georgia 7/1/2012 Drug possession 2000–2015 Yes
Idaho 2013–2015
Illinois 2000–2014 Yes
Indiana 1/1/2001 Drug possession 2002–2015
Iowa 2006–2015
Kansas 2011–2015
Kentucky 2000–2015
Louisiana 6/29/2015 Drug(Non-violent)
Maine 2012–2015
Maryland 2000–2012
Massachusetts 8/06/2010 All 2009–2015
Michigan 1/1/2002 All 2000–2013 Yes Yes
Minnesota 2000–2015
Mississippi 7/1/2014 All 2000–2015
Missouri 8/28/2012 All 2000–2015
Montana 2010–2015
Nebraska 2000–2015
Nevada 2008–2015
New Hampshire 2011–2016
New Jersey 2003–2015 Yes
New Mexico 2010–2015
New York 1/1/2004 All 2000–2015 Yes
North Carolina 2000–2015
North Dakota 2002–2014 Yes
Ohio 9/30/2011 All 2009–2015 Yes
Table A1:


State Date Type of Drug Crimes Coverage Consistent Repeal
(1) (2) (x) (3) (4)
Oklahoma 5/9/2012 All 2000–2015
Oregon 2001–2013
Pennsylvania 1/1/2011 All 2001–2015
Rhode Island 11/13/2009 All 2004–2015 Yes
South Carolina 6/2/2010 Drug possession 2000–2015 Yes Yes
South Dakota 2013–2015
Tennessee 2000–2015
Texas 2005–2015
Utah 10/1/2015 All 2000–2015 Yes
Virginia Yes
Washington 2000–2015 Yes
West Virginia 2006–2014
Wisconsin 2000–2015 Yes
Wyoming 2006–2015
  1. Column (1) reports the exact implementation date for states that modified or repealed mandatory minimum sentencing laws (MMLs). We were unable to find the day and month of MML laws for Indiana, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania, and thus we assume they were implemented on January 1. Column (2) lists the crimes for which MMLs were modified or lifted. Column (3) lists all states that consistently report data to NCRP (see Section 4 for more detail). Column (4) indicates whether the MMLs were fully repealed.

  2. Data sources: Sentencing Project, “The State of Sentencing: Developments in Policy and Practice”,, various years; Subramanian and Delaney (2013); Austin (2010);; and authors’ own research on state statutes and legislative histories.

Table A2:

Summary statistics: consistent sample.

All White Black Hispanic
Mean S.D. Mean S.D. Mean S.D. Mean S.D.
Sentence length (in days) 58.807 80.254 56.679 77.358 63.703 84.108 55.768 88.377
Black 0.487 0.500 0.000 0.000 1.000 0.000 0.030 0.170
White 0.317 0.465 1.000 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.183 0.387
Missing/other race 0.195 0.396 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.787 0.409
Female 0.119 0.324 0.175 0.380 0.094 0.292 0.086 0.281
Male 0.881 0.324 0.825 0.380 0.906 0.292 0.914 0.281
Hispanic 0.213 0.409 0.123 0.328 0.013 0.113 1.000 0.000
Not Hispanic 0.669 0.471 0.752 0.432 0.845 0.362 0.000 0.000
Missing ethnicity 0.119 0.323 0.126 0.332 0.142 0.349 0.000 0.000
Less than HS Degree 0.238 0.426 0.187 0.390 0.313 0.464 0.184 0.387
HS Degree 0.165 0.371 0.165 0.372 0.199 0.400 0.096 0.294
Some College 0.026 0.159 0.032 0.175 0.030 0.170 0.007 0.084
College Degree 0.004 0.061 0.005 0.073 0.004 0.059 0.001 0.037
Missing education 0.565 0.496 0.604 0.489 0.452 0.498 0.710 0.454
Age at prison admission 34.782 9.663 35.684 9.334 34.435 9.996 34.006 9.282
Prior felony incarceration 0.231 0.422 0.210 0.407 0.281 0.449 0.127 0.333
New court commitment 0.523 0.499 0.543 0.498 0.515 0.500 0.535 0.499
Parole revocation 0.266 0.442 0.217 0.412 0.312 0.463 0.244 0.430
Probation revocation 0.028 0.166 0.041 0.198 0.029 0.169 0.007 0.082
N 1,392,894 442,046 678,924 296,075
  1. This table contains summary statistics by race and ethnicity for all variables used in the analysis. We restrict the sample to drug offenses. New court commitment, probation and parole revocation refer to the reason for prison admittance. We report percent of the data with missing or other race, ethnicity, and educational attainment. The sample is restricted to the thirteen states that consistently reported data, as identified by Neal and Rick (2016): California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, North Dakota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. Data are from the National Corrections Reporting Program (1997–2016).

Figure A1: 
Average sentence length by race and ethnicity.
This figure plots full sample mean sentence length (in months) by race and ethnicity. Data are from the National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP).
Figure A1:

Average sentence length by race and ethnicity.

This figure plots full sample mean sentence length (in months) by race and ethnicity. Data are from the National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP).


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Supplementary Material

The online version of this article offers supplementary material (

Received: 2020-07-09
Accepted: 2021-08-16
Published Online: 2021-09-06

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