After a guilty verdict or a plea deal, a defendant will face sentencing. For most crimes, the criminal statutes provide a range of possible sentences, and the judge has the discretion to choose a sentence within that range.

Below, we’ve compiled information on the ways that character letters are used in sentencing, together with tips on writing and presenting an effective character letter.

Sentencing in Texas

When imposing a sentence, a judge can consider many factors, including the defendant’s criminal history and risk of committing another offense. These factors are often weighted on a pre-sentence investigation (PSI) report prepared by a supervision officer. The PSI is meant to assist the judge in arriving at an appropriate sentence for the defendant.

To help the judge tailor a sentence to the defendant’s circumstances, the PSI will review the person’s employment, financial background, substance use, and education history. The PSI will also examine the defendant’s family history and whether the defendant has the support of family, friends, and the community.

The Ways Character Letters Are Used in Sentencing

Character letters can be submitted to the supervision officer who prepares the PSI report or they may be submitted directly to the judge.

Character letters can be submitted for many reasons, including:

  • To explain or mitigate negative facts in the PSI report
  • To reinforce positive facts in the PSI report
  • To call attention to facts that are not included in the PSI report
  • To provide opinions about the defendant

Character letters are used to humanize the defendant and to provide information that the judge would not otherwise know. Character letters can be useful, as judges often limit or preclude character witnesses from testifying in court. Judges are often willing to review an unlimited number of character letters and will include them in the official court record.

What You Need to Do to Write an Effective Character Letter

Character letters can be difficult, and even awkward, to write. If a person acting as a character reference is unfamiliar with the way that sentencing works, he or she might not even know what to write.

Here are some tips for writing an effective character letter:

Understand Why You Were Chosen to Write a Character Letter

Character references are chosen for many different reasons. A defendant may want a letter from a co-worker or employer to attest to their sense of responsibility while on the job. At the same time, the defendant may need character letters from family members to explain a difficult childhood or reinforce the defendant’s dedication to family. 

The defendant may want a letter from a neighbor that talks about the defendant’s deep faith and volunteer work with the local church. Knowing why the defendant chose you as a character reference will help you to focus your letter on specific aspects of the defendant’s life.

Explain Who You Are

The letter should set the stage for the judge. Remember, the judge does not know you or the defendant. Begin your letter by explaining your relationship to the defendant (their boss, sister, neighbor, etc.). Then describe why you are writing to the judge. For example, you can write that you have worked with Joe for 8 years at XYZ Company. You can explain that Joe is a responsible and honest worker, and his bank fraud was a mistake that was out of character for him.

Show Rather Than Tell

When possible, tell a story or give an example of what you’re attesting to, rather than just reciting the defendant’s positive traits. For example, rather than saying that Mary has turned her life around, explain that Mary entered rehab after her arrest for drug possession and been sober for 180 days.

Tell the Judge Something New

The judge will have access to facts about the defendant contained in the PSI report. Tell the judge about things that are not likely to be in the PSI report, like the defendant’s reputation at your church or how the defendant spends two hours after work every day caring for her grandmother.

Give Your Opinion About the Defendant

The character letter allows the judge to hear about how others view the defendant. For example, you can explain how you think the defendant will move forward from his conviction because of his love for his children.

Be Brief

Judges have a limited amount of time to review character letters. Think about the most important points you need to make in your letter and stick to them. If your letter is intended to explain how the defendant raised his siblings in a broken home in a bad neighborhood, do not go off on a tangent and talk about the defendant’s kindness toward animals.

Do Not Mislead or Speculate

Remember that the defendant will probably get character letters from other people. If your letter contradicts another letter or the PSI report, both you and the defendant could lose credibility. Stick to the facts you know and avoid those you do not know. Thus, if you are the defendant’s AA sponsor, talk about the defendant’s efforts in recovering from alcoholism. But tread lightly when talking about other aspects of the defendant’s life unless you have direct knowledge of them.

Give the Letter to the Defendant’s Lawyer

The ultimate decision on whether to submit the letter to the judge should be left to the defendant and the criminal defense lawyer. Instead of sending the letter directly to the judge, send the letter to the defendant’s lawyer. You never know when a seemingly innocent phrase could turn into a major problem at sentencing. Providing the letter to the defendant’s lawyer can reduce the risk that your letter will be twisted or used against the defendant.

Although a judge will likely focus on the substance of the letter rather than its appearance, you should still run your letter through a spell checker. You should also proofread it and have the defendant review a draft before you finalize it.

Managing Your Expectations for a Character Letter

The judge will consider many factors in addition to the character letters. Even if you write a stellar character letter, the defendant might face a heavy sentence. Your letter can help and will be appreciated by the defendant. But bear in mind that you are only one part of the sentencing process. The judge will sentence the defendant based on a variety of factors in and surrounding the case.