The first time Marlon Bradford was sentenced on federal marijuana and gun charges, he got a three year prison term. The next time, he got five years. This time, he will likely get five years again, says the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Each time, federal sentencing guidelines said he should face at least nine years. Each time, prosecutors appealed a lesser sentence and won in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Bradford’s many trips to court are a symptom of uncertainty surrounding the struggle over how much power a federal judge has in deciding criminal sentences.
In recent years, defense attorneys complained that the guidelines essentially had become mandatory. Judges who sentenced within the guidelines rarely were overturned by an appeals court, they said, and a lighter sentence was more likely to get overturned on appeal than one more harsh. Some judges from across the ideological spectrum have complained that their authority and discretion has been usurped, said Washington University law Prof. Peter Joy. “Within the last four years, they’ve gone from mandatory to advisory, but sort of strongly advisory to – some would argue – proportional, to now advisory but with the perception that there’s widespread discretion on the part of judges,” said U. S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway.