Panel Paper: Bunching at Punishment Cliffs: Evidence from Drug Mandatory Minimums

Friday, April 6, 2018
Mary Graydon Center - Room 200 (American University)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Cody Tuttle, University of Maryland

In this paper, I examine bunching at a punishment cliff, a point at which the punishment for a crime increases discontinuously, to shed light on discretion and discrimination in the US criminal justice system. Federal drug mandatory minimums are triggered when the amount of drugs involved in the crime exceeds a threshold amount. Using data on recorded drug amounts in federal sentencing, I find substantial bunching at and above the point where the punishment increases. Furthermore, the data show that there is missing mass below the threshold value rather than above it, suggesting that the bunching is a result of values being shaded upward. By comparing data on state-level drug convictions, drug seizures by local and federal law enforcement, and case management data from prosecutors, I find evidence that the observed bunching in drug quantities is driven by prosecutorial discretion. Finally, I show that bunching above the threshold for drug trafficking is higher for non-white offenders, which is consistent with a model of racial discrimination.