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How to write a sentencing letter to a judge

Updated February 21, 2017

Judges and pre-sentence investigators really do review and consider letters they receive, but not all letters impact their decision-making. Biased letters receive little consideration, while balanced letters are given more weight. If you're asking for a term of probation that will protect the victim in some way, your request will likely be granted. But if you're asking for leniency, justification is essential. Writing your letter from a thoughtful, objective standpoint ensures that you will be taken seriously by the court.

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  1. Address the judge as "Honorable" in your greeting. In the first paragraph, explain how long you've known the defendant and in what capacity. Establish why you are qualified to evaluate the defendant; state your job or title if it's relevant. Mention the upcoming sentencing date.

  2. State what you are hoping for and why in the second paragraph. Use facts, not skewed or immaterial background information. For example, if you're requesting that the defendant be given probation instead of jail time, explain why the defendant is a probationary candidate. Describe how the defendant has changed since the crime took place. Illustrate your point by describing actions the defendant is taking (e.g., attending substance abuse treatment while on bond).

  3. Balance your letter in the third paragraph by admitting that the defendant has areas in life that need work. A letter that minimises the defendant's criminal behaviour is too one-sided to be effective; it's best to describe positive characteristics while acknowledging the defendant's poor decision. Explain how you and others plan to support the defendant after sentencing.

  4. Close your letter by reaffirming your sentencing request. Provide your daytime telephone number so that the judge or pre-sentence investigator can contact you with questions. Before mailing the letter, ask the defence attorney to review the letter for unintentional legal ramifications.

  5. Address the judge as "Honorable" in your greeting. In the first paragraph, explain how long you've known the defendant and your relationship. Refer to the approaching sentencing date. Keep your letter as concise as possible. (Reminder: Your letter may be viewed by the defence attorney or defendant if it impacts the judge's sentencing; the defence has a right to refute your statements.)

  6. Explain how the crime has impacted you physically and emotionally in the second paragraph. If you've suffered monetary damages, outline the cost. If you're requesting the maximum sentence possible under sentencing guidelines, back up your request. Cite the defendant's other crimes, lack of remorse or other incidents that occurred. Attach relevant police reports. If you're requesting leniency, support your rationale and mention the defendant's positive traits. Use even-handed statements that reflect logic and reason and never minimise the crime.

  7. Describe the sentence that would best serve all parties involved in your third paragraph. If you're requesting probation, explain what terms would be helpful: community service, restitution, counselling, no contact with you, alcohol monitoring or another choice.

  8. Reiterate your recommendation in your final paragraph and thank the judge for reading your letter. Give your daytime telephone number in case he or she has any questions.

  9. Tip

    A typed letter is easier for the judge to read than a handwritten letter. Unless the case is a very serious felony, write a maximum of one to two pages.

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About the Author

Jill Arens has been a journalist since 2007. She brings expertise in legal topics, drawing on years of work in the court system. Arens received her Bachelor of Science in communications and psychology and was honored by her college with the Outstanding Student in Communications Award.

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