Writing a letter to Judge to plead leniency
April 28, 2015 5:46 PM   Subscribe

What does a judge want to read about the person being, uh, judged?

I have a young friend, age 22, was found guilty of being in possession of stolen items when he was 16. (He was a passenger in a friend's car and another passenger had said items, being a car full of young black men, they were all charged, he fought the charge and was given a severely harsh sentence, which included some time in jail, fines and probation) Over the years, he has struggled with: ability to pay fines, transportation to PO, staying employed(transportation to job problematic), being homeless(father abandoned him and mother died of cancer in his young teens) and not having a permanent address, have all at one time or another gotten him in violation of his probation. He is danger of a five year prison sentence because of this. He is before a judge on Monday to either dismiss the probation violation (expunge?) or to reinstate his prior sentence. (as it turns out, the terms were fulfilled but not updated in the computer when an officer ran his ID, he was arrested for the probation violation, and for being in the company of another person who had pot on him, so he has a possession charge as well, even though the police report clearly states the drug was in a different named person's pocket) Yes, the legal system is that screwed up here.

He has just become a father and the change to his outlook and level of responsibility taking is incredible. His daughter was born 6 weeks premature and so far, he has been in jail for all but the first four days of her life. His girlfriend is struggling to take care of the teeny baby alone and is in peril of losing her home. She needs him home, supporting and helping pay the rent and bills. I've told her that if it came down to writing a check to complete his sentence, I'm gonna do it, I'll happily buy another humans freedom if it will get this taken care of once and for all.

I trust this kid explicitly. I welcome him into my home, he's like a son to me. He looks up to me as a maternal influence. He's really ashamed to have let his girlfriend and his daughter down. He needs a chance to grow up and into his new role as father and provider, I really believe he has it in him to be amazing at it. He has such a great heart and positive outlook, even though his life has been full of tragedy.

My question is what points should I be hitting on? Kind of the same things about him I've said here? But more elaborated? I feel like I should limit my letter to one side of the page? And kind of awkwardly asked: how much of my own self should I write about? I'm a well-established, well-off, middle-aged white woman, can I use any of this?
posted by Jazz Hands to Law & Government (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Ask his lawyer. If he doesn't have a lawyer, get one. Hopefully you can get a lawyer familiar with the judge in question, who will know what that judge in particular is interested in.
posted by grouse at 5:54 PM on April 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

+ + + + to what grouse said. i don't know nearly enough about the criminal justice system to be confident in giving feedback. however, when I had a friend in jail for a relatively minor offense, a bunch of us rallied to try to provide support. things that were important included: 1) friends, family, and employers writing letters testifying to his good character, 2) rallying friends to *show up* to sit in the back of the courtroom whenever he had a court date and 3) presenting a clear picture of his support system and making a case that he had a network of folks who were invested in him not reoffending. Friends in the back of the courtroom reiterate point 3.

I don't know much, but those were the recommendations that we were given, and they worked with this particular judge. Reiterating that you should talk to his lawyer first, or public defender or whoever, and ask them for a read on the judge first (but if you don't have that luxury, this is what friends who know more than me recommended)
posted by puckish at 6:17 PM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Talking with your friend's lawyer about it is the best place to start. If your friend does not have a lawyer, and will not have a lawyer, talk to a legal aid agency or any community group focused on re-entry issues to find out how and when you can get a letter to the judge (or testify at a hearing) for consideration in sentencing. There are almost certainly rules covering this and you don't want to break them.

Typically, when you write these sorts of letters it's important to first establish who you are (so the judge knows how or why to consider your judgment useful); then you describe how you know who the defendant is (again, so the judge knows how or why to consider your opinion useful); then you state your opinion of the defendant's character and reasons why you feel he should be treated lightly.

If you intend and are able to help the person straighten out his life (you can hire him, for instance) be very specific about your ability and commitment to helping. Where a judge is inclined to release someone with a light sentence, she is much more likely to do so when she believes the person will have appropriate support to make good use of the opportunity.

Be detailed and specific but brief and direct. Although it's important to express both your humanity, your friend's humanity and the warmth of your feelings, focus on the practical reasons why your friend deserves another chance, why he is likely to succeed, and how you will help.
posted by crush-onastick at 6:22 PM on April 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

I know people like this guy who got caught in some endless hurricane of BS. It's really draining.

The last time I was on jury duty, the judge noted how many guys caught on some stupid minor offenses came to the initial hearing with a girlfriend and by trial they were married, because it gives the person more..credibility? i guess. I can't with confidence suggest that some 2 people I don't know should go get married to look credible, but really integrating and emphasizing the family angle now that he has his own seems to draw empathy. Maybe his girlfriend can write a letter as well? But definitely work with a lawyer if possible.
posted by WeekendJen at 6:28 PM on April 28, 2015

there's a not-negligible chance that his lawyer will be less than helpful or perhaps even unreachable. As a criminal defense lawyer I can tell you these things will generally help:

(1) be specific about good points about the defendant that you know from first hand experience ... like you trusting him in your home (and why) is good, long experience of trustworthy, decent behavior is good, etc.

(2) offering to go to the hearing would be good too. if you can't reach the lawyer, just go and introduce yourself. if you're not sure which person in a suit is your friend's lawyer, tell a bailiff/sheriff deputy assigned to the court why you're there, in my experience they are always helpful. Wait patiently IN the courtroom, the judge is likely to notice you and wonder who.you are and will be impressed that your young friend inspires such patient loyalty from an upstanding citizen.

(3) be as nice as you can possibly be. your presence will mean a lot. Pastors and religious leaders sometimes inspire an eye roll but a neighbor or community friend can have a real impact.
posted by jayder at 6:52 PM on April 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

Whether you're writing this letter to the judge, to your friend's lawyer, or to anyone else you would like to persuade in a legal context, you want to use facts and not characterizations. "His daughter was born 6 weeks premature and so far, he has been in jail for all but the first four days of her life" is a good statement of concrete facts. "I trust this kid explicitly" and "He has such a great heart and positive outlook" are characterizations and therefore, in a legal context, not so useful.

Have you ever participated in an intervention? If so, do you remember how it was important to cite specific instances, and not to make broad statements about hurt and betrayal? Same principle. If you're more theatrical minded, I think the relevant Chekhov quote is, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

Two people recommend their respective housecleaners to you. The first says, "She's awesome. I trust her." The second says, "I keep jewelry and cash in my bedroom, I don't bother to hide it, and nothing has ever gone missing." Who do you hire? Can you even reliably tell me what that first person meant by "trust" and "awesome"? Likewise, if you tell the judge that your friend's girlfriend "needs" him home, isn't the judge going to ask what exactly you mean by "needs"? So just skip that interim step and present the facts up front.

Facts persuade judges. Data. That's what you write. If it helps, start by writing, "I trust this person. Here's why." And then when you're done with the essay, cross out those first two sentences.

how much of my own self should I write about?

Probably at most, a short paragraph. If you're a community leader, mention it. If you are well educated, mention that. Being "well-off" is of dubious value, and being middle-aged is probably irrelevant. What would make you credit a stranger's opinion, if the roles were reversed? Use that. And yes, as Jayder says, show up. Good luck.
posted by cribcage at 7:02 PM on April 28, 2015 [6 favorites]

If I understand correctly, you intend to make a submission in mitigation of whatever outcome the judge may be deciding on.

There is good advice above.
As cribcage says, facts are gold. Anyone can say "he's a good guy who deserves a break", you need to provide factual data that will lead the judge to think this, rather than saying it yourself.

Make the judge feel uncomfortable about the idea of depriving this person of their liberty.

Do not attempt to minimise or argue the facts of the case.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:02 PM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks to everyone who answered so far. It helped me focus my thoughts. Kept me from being too emotional on the page even though I'm crying my eyes out off and on. Unfortunately I will not be able to be in court, ironically, my coworker is out on maternity leave so there is no coverage for our patients' care. Yes, my coworker is the girlfriend in this scenario. I hope what I've written will help and there's to be a rightful, just outcome.
posted by Jazz Hands at 8:11 PM on April 28, 2015

A young friend of a friend had a similar situation. On the court date, about 40 people showed up to the hearing and many of them had also written letters. At one point, someone (the judge? the lawyer?) asked everyone to stand who had come to vouch for this kid's potential, which they did. That apparently really swayed the judge to probation and not more jail time. It's worth a shot.
posted by megancita at 9:20 AM on April 29, 2015

Nthing that the lawyer should have guidelines. The one I talked to mentioned, in addition to the stuff mentioned above, making the case for how he will make a living if the violation is dismissed. The judge will want to be confident that no trouble will come of letting your friend out, and part of that comes from knowing he has a place to stay and can get a job or job training.
posted by ignignokt at 9:30 AM on April 29, 2015

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