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The Purpose of Court Character Reference Letters for Sentencing

Why Do Court Character Reference Letters Matter?

In the criminal justice system, when authorities charge an individual with a crime, the allegations destroy your name and reputation. In theory, our judicial system operates on the foundational principle that individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty. That is not the case in reality. The mere accusations, whether true or not, set in motion of cascading negative publicity and judgement of you, the defendant.

Given that over 90% of criminal cases are settled via a plea agreement, when it comes to sentencing a defendant, the judge takes into account only a few pieces of information:

  1. Probation Report (from your probation presentence interview)

    1. The probation officer is biases because the first information about you and your crime comes from the prosecution

  2. Government / Prosecution Sentencing Memo

  3. Defense Sentencing Memo

  4. Your Personal Narrative

  5. Character Reference Letters

As a defendant, you must take proactive steps to self advocate and influence the proceedings at each stage and whenever possible. One crucial but overlooked step in this process involves preparing character reference letters.

The Purpose of a Character Reference Letter

A well-crafted character reference letter serves to help a judge gain deeper insights into your character. By giving the judge more data points and stories about you, particularly in the face of you being convicted of a crime, these letters can positively impact the judges perception of you and can result in a more favorable outcome (i.e. a lower sentence).

Remember, the judge has a very limited view of who you are as a human being. We want to remind the judge that you are more than this crime. The prosecutor will twist every fact and highlight every detriment to show why you are deserving of punishment.

A collection of character reference letters from diverse sources can shed light on your life and offer a more holistic perspective and contribute to stakeholders' understanding of the individual. These letters serve to counterbalance the negative associations tied to crime and the perception you are a bad or evil person. Effective character reference letters, when provided by credible sources, help the judge appreciate the full scope of an your life.

Defining Credible Sources

A credible source, in the context of character reference letters, is someone who possesses a deep understanding of the individual. This does not necessarily equate to a person of influence or power in society. What matters most is that the source can attest to specific details or stories regarding the person's conduct in society.

A robust character reference campaign can introduce a different narrative, highlighting the positive aspects of your life that will never have surfaced otherwise. Each character reference letter needs to add a layer to the story, portraying you as someone who, despite the poor decision that lead to the crime, has (the following are examples for illustrative purposes):

  1. Triumphed over adversity, working his way through college despite humble beginnings.

  2. Contributed to the local economy by providing employment to numerous individuals.

  3. Paid his taxes each year.

  4. Acted as a pillar of his community, through youth coaching and volunteer work.

  5. Supported charitable endeavors and inspired others to succeed.

  6. Maintained a strong family and community-oriented ethos.

  7. Engaged in philanthropy for the benefit of at-risk youth.

  8. Acknowledged his past mistakes, expressed remorse, and taken concrete steps toward making amends.

Through a series of character reference letters from various individuals, a more comprehensive and nuanced picture of you begins to emerge. These letters cannot change the crime, but they can influence how a judge perceives you and provide a broader context for your life.


Character reference letters are instrumental in helping a judge gain a deeper understanding of your life. The letters serve to remind us that each person is unique, with a multifaceted character defined by more than just a single chapter in their life story.

In the criminal justice system, a well-coordinated character reference letter campaign can have a profound impact, potentially softening judgment and leading to leniency for the defendant.

It's crucial to recognize that the purpose of character reference letters is not to provide explanations or excuses for crime. Instead, these letters should humanize you, show this is abhorrent behavior, and why you are worthy of redemption.

Understanding the purpose behind character reference letters enables you to strategically coordinate an effective character reference letter campaign, potentially influencing the outcome of you sentencing.


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