What Are Letters of Support, And What Should You Do To Make Them Meaningful?

In federal criminal cases, letters of support are letters written to the judge who will decide the defendant’s sentence.  They are addressed to the judge, and they ask the judge for leniency in sentencing the defendant.  They can be written by anyone who knows the defendant, and there is no limit on how many people can write them.  The letters are sent to the defendant’s criminal defense lawyer who collects them and sends them to the judge in a single packet.  

The judge will read the letters of support before the sentencing hearing and will consider them in deciding the defendant’s sentence.  Some letters of support can be very effective in persuading a judge to give the defendant a shorter sentence.

The Judge’s Point of View

The person who will read the letters is the sentencing judge.  Therefore, it is important to understand what matters to a sentencing judge.  First, it is important to keep in mind that, even though this may be your first time going through a federal criminal case, the judge has probably handled hundreds of criminal sentencings.  This means that the judge is probably not going to be emotional about a criminal sentencing. And although a loved one going to prison can be a devastating emotional experience for you, the judge has probably seen similar situations hundreds of times.  For this reason, judges tend to believe that emotional harm to a family is a part of almost all criminal cases and that the defendant is the one who caused it by breaking the law. In other words, emotional appeals about how much the defendant’s family misses and needs their loved one generally do not work, because judges are immune to them and believe that this is the defendant’s own fault.

In my experience as a federal criminal defense attorney, other than the seriousness of the crime, which a letter of support cannot affect, what matters most to judges is whether the defendant has generally been a good person, other than committing this crime, and whether the defendant is likely to commit more crime after being released from prison.  So, how can a letter of support convince a judge of these things?

The Defendant’s Character and Good Works:

Letters of support should explain, using examples, how the defendant has a good character.  Just saying that the defendant is a good person, without specifics, is not very persuasive.  It is always a good idea to let the judge know about things the defendant has done to help others and the community.  Has he volunteered to do things for the community? Has he coached children’s sports teams? Has he volunteered at church?  Anything that shows the person has tried to help others or the community can help convince the judge that the defendant is more than just a criminal.

The Defendant’s Likelihood of Committing More Crime After Release

Unfortunately, many people in the criminal justice system go to prison and then commit more crimes after they are released.  Judges sometimes see the same person multiple times. If a judge believes a person is likely to commit more crime after release from prison, the judge may want to sentence the person to more prison time in order to protect society from them for a longer time and to send them a message that more crime will not pay.  Family members should explain in their letters how they plan to help make sure the defendant will not commit more crime after release.

Who Should Write Letters of Support?

Although letters from family members are important, almost every defendant can get letters of support from family members.  Judges see these all of the time. Therefore, it is often very helpful to get letters of support from people who are not family members as well.  These should be from people who actually know the defendant and can speak about him.

Collecting letters of support is just one aspect of preparing for a federal sentencing hearing.  There is much more that should be done to help achieve a fair and just result. If you, or a loved one, is charged with a federal crime in Texas, including Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, Sherman, Waco, or Del Rio, you should consult with a skilled and experienced federal criminal defense attorney in Dallas who is well-versed in federal criminal trials and handling federal sentencings.  A federal criminal charge is extremely serious. Hire someone who is ready, willing, and able to protect the rights of the accused zealously.  

Attorney John Helms

T: 214-666-8010