What to Include (and Avoid) in Character Reference Letters

If you’re facing a federal prison sentence, one of the more impactful ways to help yourself is by painting a clear picture of who you are outside of the crime you may be accused of. While the prosecution is doing their job, building a case, and painting a picture of you, you have the right to do the same.

You only get a handful of ways to advocate for yourself in the process of a conviction. Preparing for your pre-sentence investigation such that a complete report is produced is a key, as is a thoughtful personal narrative provided to the judge, and heartfelt allocution during your sentencing hearing. Those are all ways you can speak for yourself, but what about others who can speak on your behalf? That’s where character reference letters come in.

To begin with, you should understand that the judge is charged with reading the material before them to arrive at a fair sentence pronouncement, and you must ask whether what you add to that pile will help paint a clear picture of your character. Inundating the judge with hundreds of letters that all say the same thing is not putting your best foot forward. More is not always better in this case. Sometimes it’s just more. Quality over quantity.

The following guidance is provided by our friends at Court Character Reference Letters.

What to Include in Your Character Reference Letters

  1. Character reference letters should be written by those who know the defendant well and can speak with authority on their moral character. Make sure that relationship is clear. Explain, in plain language, the writer’s relationship to the defendant at the beginning of the letter. For example, “[Defendant] was my employee for 12 years,” or, “I’ve known [defendant] since the 9th grade.” More on who should write your character reference letters.
  2. The goal is to show the judge things they would otherwise not know about the defendant so encourage a focus on one or two experiences that demonstrate the defendant’s best qualities. It’s best if these qualities are highlighted in the form of a story. A story about courage is far more compelling than a proclamation like, “[Defendant] is the most courageous person I know.”
  3. It’s important for the writer to be clear that the defendant has revealed their crime, taken responsibility for it, and is aware and remorseful for the pain caused to victims. If there are steps that have been taken to “make it right,” include those. 
  4. Wherever the defendant can paint a picture of ongoing emotional and financial support, the less a judge may believe this person is likely to re-offend. That kind of support can come from their family, friends, place of worship, employment, community, or support groups. Emphasize that the defendant is not alone in reconciling with society. 
  5. Thank the judge for their time and careful consideration of the letter.
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What to Avoid in Your Letters

  1. It’s very, very important not to minimize the defendant’s guilt. Whatever the role a person has in a given offense, it is not to be in any way diminished as that may be misconstrued as deflecting responsibility. In the same way, do not detract from the seriousness of the crime in the eyes of the court. Total accountability is paramount.
  2. Do not suggest or be seen as rooting for a specific sentence. The judge, generally, does not want to be told how to do their job. After all, they have spent many, many years studying, enforcing, and enacting justice. This is their domain, and their office comes with an expectation of utmost respect. 
  3. Don’t suggest or imply that the defendant has been treated unfairly. Though most defendants experience more than a little prejudice or inequity during the process, judges may have a specific view on how much prejudice may be warranted. The writer should leave their opinion on discrimination, maltreatment, or inequality out of the letter. 
  4. Letters should be concise. 1-2 pages should be enough to get all salient points across. Remember, the defendant wants the judge to be engaged and interested in the defendant as a person and not just as a potential criminal. We want to write at a length that is complete, yet digestible. 
  5. Refrain from comparing the defendant’s case to any other case. Drawing comparisons, as a layperson is different from the exacting art and science of supporting a decision with caselaw. Leave that part to the professionals; In this case, the judge.

Quality, well-written, easy-to-read, attention-grabbing character reference letters can have a profound impact on the judge’s understanding of a defendant. In the effort to advocate for yourself, highlighting that you are not the worst thing you’ve ever done is a critical component of a competent mitigation strategy. Spend the time to do this well. It is one of the only chances you gets to be more than your conviction in the eyes of the judge.

This blog post was prepared in conjunction with Court Character Reference Letters, which simplifies the court character reference letter process and offers to coordinate the process for you.