When you provide a character reference letter to the court the letter should follow a formal format that makes it appear professional and easy for the judge to read. The letter should be typed on white paper. You should sign and date the letter, and the original, not a copy, needs to go to the court. In addition to the character information about the defendant, include your address, how you know the defendant and for how long, and a little about yourself so the court will give credibility to your opinion.
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Ties to the Community
Particularly when looking at bail conditions and terms of release from custody, but to some extent at all phases of judicial proceedings, judges consider whether the defendant will remain in the community and take responsibility for her actions, or whether she will run. A good reference letter will discuss the defendant's positive relationships in the community. For example, a person with a history of supporting her family that lives nearby, or who regularly volunteers at a homeless shelter will get a more positive result than a loner with no community contacts.
Remorse and Efforts at Rehabilitation
A character letter that details a defendant's expressions of remorse and desire for rehabilitation will impress the court. If you know that the defendant has made restitution for damages, if he has entered treatment, or has asked for help in getting his life straightened out, all of these things will help convince the judge to give more leniency to the defendant. If true, tell the court you will help the defendant do what he needs to do to stay out of future trouble. Demonstration of a strong support system helps the court justify giving the defendant a chance, rather than simply sentencing him to prolonged incarceration.
Specific Examples of Positive Behavior
Judges see hundreds of defendants every year, so it makes sense that all their stories and pleas for leniency start blending together. A good character reference letter can make the defendant become a real person to the judge rather than just another name. Give specific examples of positive actions the defendant has made that you have personally witnessed. Show the court emotion. If you have seen the defendant help someone less fortunate, describe what he did, the look on the person's face whom he helped, the tears of gratitude. You want the judge to like the defendant because of your words.
What Not to Say
Do not minimise the defendant's actions. The court takes the offence seriously, and for the judge to respect your opinion you must take the offence seriously as well. Similarly, do not say anything negative about the victim of the crime. If the victim's character is relevant, the judge will already know about it. In your character reference letter you need to come across as an impartial observer who has positive things to say about the defendant because the defendant has good character, not because you dislike the victim. Remember, too, that the judge probably has sentencing guidelines, so recommending a sentence will not help, and may diminish your credibility.
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- TorontoCriminalDefense.com; Make a Positive Impact With Personal Reference Letters; Tushar K. Pain; 2003
- Lawyers.ca; How to Write a Character Reference Letter for Use on Sentencing in Canada; Steven R. Biss; 2003
- ArmstrongLegal.com; How to Write an Effective Character Reference;
- BusinessBalls.com; Reference Letters; Alan Chapman; 2010