When authorities bring people into the criminal justice system, they frequently rip away the humanity of the accused. Regardless of what good the person has done in the past, others will judge that individual for the criminal misconduct alleged in the complaint. Unfortunately, people in that predicament lack a best-practice way of preparing.

To use a cliche, they resemble that deer-in-the-headlights pose.

When defendants don’t have previous experience with the system, they understandably feel shaken, afraid, and alone. Some defendants do not know where to turn for guidance.

All too often, they rely solely upon defense attorneys. And defense attorneys can be an outstanding resource. Yet think about the training of a defense attorney. What traits do they have?

  • They are trained to assess evidence of the crime
  • They are skilled at interpreting case law
  • They know how to research statutes
  • They will focus on undermining what authorities believe they can prove
  • They will support arguments to get the best outcome for the defendant with precedent and law

Those are admirable skills, necessary to the practice of criminal defense. But those skills do not always make defense attorneys good listeners. They may not know much about the personal lives of the defendants they’re supposed to defend. Unfortunately, in the federal system, more than 90% of the people that face criminal charges also undergo a sentencing hearing

We’re happy for the small percentage of defendants that are able to move through the criminal justice system without a conviction. Yet for every defendant that prevails over criminal charges, nine defendants face a sentencing hearing. Our team is uniquely qualified to help those people help themselves. Obviously, we don’t have the time or bandwidth to interact personally with every person that reaches out to us. We’re only able to devote one-on-one time to our clients.

Yet we’re passionate about public service and helping the most people get the best results. For those people that do not have the resources to hire our team, we recommend a three-tiered approach to getting the best possible outcome.

Stakeholders: We have to start with an idea of our audience,

  • Who are the stakeholders in the criminal justice system?
  • What do they think?
  • In what ways can we influence those people?

It doesn’t matter what stage in the criminal justice system a person is in, it’s crucial to consider the audience. For 90% of the criminal defendants that will face a sentencing hearing, those stakeholders include the following people:

  • The prosecutor will persuade the judge to convict the defendant.
  • The probation officer will prepare the presentence investigation report.
  • The judge will assess the appropriate sentence.
  • The defense attorney that will argue for the best outcome.
  • The defendant will live with the outcome.

Consider each of those people and come up with a personal plan to influence them.

Stakeholders: Prosecutor, Probation Officer, Judge, Defense Attorney

  • What do they know about you?
  • What don’t they know about you?
  • What do they think about your alleged crime?
  • What could you do to influence their perception of you?

This exercise will give you a great basis to start your path toward helping yourself. And when you help yourself, you restore confidence. You get the ball moving in the right direction!

Are you ready to get started? Great!

The three-part strategy we create for each of our clients includes the following exercises, which we’ll describe in detail below:

  1. Personal Narrative
  2. Sentence Mitigation Video
  3. Character Reference Letters

Personal Narrative: Every defendant should work hard to prepare a personal narrative. That isn’t always easy. It’s hard to introspect, to think about your life, to write a document that will convey a life story, with the appropriate level of detail, in the appropriate length, covering the essential points. Yet a personal narrative can prove to be the most influential document for anyone facing a sentencing hearing. Why is that? If you review the answers that you provided in the above, you’ll know that the stakeholders don’t know much of anything about you.

The prosecutorial team will have invested thousands of hours to build an unflattering case of the defendant. It will focus on the crime and why the judge should impose a severe sentence.

The probation officer works for the judicial system. The probation officer’s primary task for a sentencing hearing is to help the judge know more about the defendant, and sentencing ranges, and to offer a recommendation. T

The Judge works with criminal defendants every day. Many judges come from a prosecutorial background. They know that every defendant wants the same thing: leniency. Think about how those experiences influence a judge’s perspective.

The defense attorney is focusing on evidence and case law and statutes. He may not know much about the individual as a human being. A defendant has more context. Only the defendant can help stakeholders understand his life as a whole. Defendants can help themselves by writing a personal narrative.

That written narrative should stay focused on the following goals:

1. Identify how the criminal offense victimized others.

2. Paint a picture of the influences that led to criminal misconduct.

3. Describe lessons learned from the experience.

4. Show steps taken to make things right.

5. Reveal a plan that will lead to a full reconciliation as a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen. By adhering to those five points, defendants advance prospects toward getting the best possible outcome.

Sentencing Video: A sentencing video is a next step for the defendant that really wants to make a personal investment in helping stakeholders get the big picture. You’ve heard the story about the picture that tells a thousand words. A video does thousand times more! Videos help in the courtroom because they bring aspects of the defendant’s day-to-day life that the judge would not otherwise see. A video helps the judge see what words alone cannot portray. All strategies in the sentence-mitigation plan should adhere to the same five goals we offered in the previous section on personal narratives. Although a skilled videographer can help enormously, in truth, a defendant who keeps the goals in mind can create a video with astounding power to influence. For those who must create the do-it-yourself video, it’s best to create a script. Think about the stakeholders. Then contemplate questions that each stakeholder will have. From those questions, derive a set of responses. Then create a script that you can follow along. Besides telling the defendant’s story, an effective video should bring other elements into the courtroom. Defendants should get video testimonials from people who would confirm positive influences. It’s important to show that although a defendant has been convicted of a crime, that person has still made positive contributions to society. Use video to show that story.

When creating a sentence-mitigation video, consider:

B-roll footage that will bring the story to life

Shooting locations that will give stakeholders a sense of where the defendant lives

Testimonials that others will provide about the defendant’s good character

Character Reference Letters: The final component of our three-part plan is the character-reference letter. Letters that others write about an individual go a long way toward counterbalancing the prosecutor’s statements. Contemplate people who know the most about you. Ask those people to offer specific details on the ways that you’ve contributed to their lives, personally. Character reference letters can have an enormously positive influence on the sentencing hearing. Helping those writers understand the salient points they should make, and the points that they should avoid is crucial to getting the outcome you want.

Seven points to consider on persuasive character-reference letters:

1. The writer should be clear about his or her relationship to the defendant.

2: The writer should not make excuses for the defendant.

3. The writer should not complain about perceived unfairness in the system

4. The writer should not offer thoughts on an appropriate sentence.

5. The writer should emphasize that the defendant has accepted full responsibility for his crime.

6. The writer should write about how the defendant expressed thoughts for making things right.

7. The writer should offer at least one specific detail on how the defendant has made a positive contribution to his life or community. As with personal narratives and mitigation videos, character-reference letter campaigns should strive to help stakeholders get a better understanding of the defendant.

If you would like to speak with our team, schedule a call here.


Justin Paperny