Help me write a character reference for my friend awaiting sentencing in a US prison.
September 10, 2012 10:35 AM   Subscribe

Help me write a character reference for my friend awaiting sentencing in a US prison.

A good friend of mine is currently doing time in a pre-trial facility for a non-violent crime. He has plead guilty and is now awaiting sentencing.

He is looking at anywhere between "time served" (he has been in a pre-trial facility for two years) or a further two and a half years. Apparently it's up to the judge what he wants to give him and this is primarily going to be based on things such as character references, which will give the judge an idea of what type of person he is sentencing and whether further incarceration would be necessary for him.

So my question is, how do I go about writing a character reference? What sort of things should I include, etc. etc.? Thanks in advance
posted by FuckingAwesome to Law & Government (6 answers total) is a great reference source for questions like this. This was the first thread that turned up on my lazy Google; it's about a Canadian matter, but I think the general style and form is applicable to US matters as well.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:44 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Generally in these sorts of things, his lawyer will provide you with at least a guideline, if not an actual form version to make your own. Talking to them at least would be helpful, and it matters a bit whether it's federal or not. (This sounds federal.) I know that when I had to do this I was a COMPLETE blank and had no insight into what would be useful or not, and the legal input was very necessary.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 10:50 AM on September 10, 2012

My virus protection will not let me open Sidhedevil's link.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:56 AM on September 10, 2012

PrisonTalk's DNS is messed up! (It's also a .com, not a .org, so I have no idea what I was thinking.) I don't get a virus, but I get a "DNS Expired" notice.

Googling "prisontalk character reference letters" will still bring up the thread I linked to and others, which are still accessible from Google cache. Sorry about adding a dead link; I hope the PrisonTalk folks straighten this out soon, as it's a useful resource.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:59 AM on September 10, 2012

I've written a couple of these. In each case, the friend in question gave me a few points to emphasize, which was helpful. I basically covered how I knew the person, their good qualities, with a couple of concrete examples (volunteers with x program, helped me with y thing), and encouraged the judge to do the thing requested (sentence, remove from parole supervision, etc.). I stayed far away from my political or other opinions about the law, sentence, or offense. It was more like a job reference than anything else.
posted by gingerbeer at 11:08 AM on September 10, 2012

Talk to your friend's lawyer, you need a plan. You may be the wrong party to write a letter. You could hurt him by writing.

A few disclaimers: Being held in pre-trial for two years is pretty intense for a non-violent crime, so I'm assuming it's fairly serious. I can only speak to California in the non-federal courts, but I'm betting it's pretty similar elsewhere. And, of course, IAALBNYL blah blah blah.

First, to be honest, I'm dubious about the effectiveness of character reference letters that are submitted without a sentencing brief. Sentencing briefs can be very effective. The accused has the right, at sentencing, to present a sentencing brief outlining the arguments why they should be sentenced leniently. When I prepare these I present the various character references as exhibits to back up factual allegations in the brief. And that's what I'm looking for, facts about the accursed behavior, not opinions on character.

Exactly what facts I'm looking for are going to depends on the crimes the accused is being held account for. For example, if the person has been accused of an assault I'm going to want to show that the person has been in stressful situations and not resorted to violence. This can include sports, work, or local politics. Things that will reinforce the idea that the assault was a one time event.

And I'm going to want lots of letters so that the judge can feel more assured you're not cherry picking (although, of course you are).

Finally, I'm going to want to know about the person who's writing the letter. You don't want five people with drug possession charges writing the letters for a person accused of trafficking.

Lastly, don't be surprised if your friend's lawyer wants to be paid extra for doing this. My retainer agreements deal with actions up to trial and that's it. If the person wants extra work done after the trail there will be additional expenses. That being said, briefs like this are, relatively speaking, fairly inexpensive. A lot will depend on the number of people the lawyer needs to interview in determining who can provide effective facts and who is a credible source.

All lawyers have different tactics on this: a fair number just submit on the brief. But, personally, I try to talk to the judge in chambers. This (1) let's me reiterate my case, and as any advertizer will tell you, repetition is good and (2) let's the judge yell at me.

I personally think number two is more important. Judges are people and, exposed to hundreds of nearly senseless crimes and acts of bad judgment on a daily basis can get really fed up. You'll rarely see a judge act angry on the stand. They're well trained not to. But they will get angry, and I don't want them angry when they're sentencing. I can't tell you how many times I've had a judge lash into me with the problems of my argument, provide me with a list of reasons why they're not going to grant any leniency, and the stupidity of my client. They have sent me out of their room figuratively bloodied dozens of times and promised that they're going to sentence my client to the maximum extent allowed by law.

Then I'll go out into the court, tell my client just what the judge has told me, and watch them go ashen. They look terrified and scared. Then the judge will, as often as not, change their mind and sentence my client lightly. I think it's because they've released their anger and had their say in a way that they can't in open court. Now that they've achieved some catharsis that's not allowed them on the bench, they have also seen the terror their putative sentence has already inflicted as I advise my client of their decision. In other words, they've seen some of the punishment they believe they need to inflict.

This having been done, I think they're able to reflect and have now have mercy.
posted by bswinburn at 11:11 AM on September 10, 2012 [23 favorites]

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