Character Reference Letters 

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Character Reference Letters

Mitigation strategies for people facing sentencing in federal court.


If you’re facing a sentencing hearing in federal court, you’ve got to think about the judge. Your family and friends know you a lot better than the federal prosecutor who is building a case against you. You help yourself best when you consider the different tactics you can take as part of your sentence-mitigation strategy.

One tactic should include a campaign to generate character-reference letters.

My name is Michael Santos, and I know a great deal about preparing mitigation strategies. Those strategies should be specific for a person at different stages of the journey. The character-reference letter campaign should begin long before sentencing.

I served 26 years in federal prison, and I’ve interviewed thousands of people who faced sentencing hearings. I’ve also interviewed many federal judges, some of whom appear on videos on our website. If you listen to those interviews, you’ll get a better idea of what to include, and what not to include in a character-reference letter.

Understanding the Role of Character Reference Letters

Character reference letters provide the court with a broader, more humane view of the defendant. Typically, a person would ask friends, family members, colleagues, or community members to write the letters. Each letter should highlight the positive attributes and contributions of the individual facing sentencing.

Key Elements of a Compelling Character Reference Letter

  • Authenticity: The letter should be genuine and personal. Generic praise is less impactful than specific anecdotes and examples that depict the character of the defendant.
  • Writer’s Credibility: Letters from individuals who have a close relationship with the defendant carry more weight. Rather than trying to find a person who is influential, but doesn’t know you, find a person who can describe your character because of a lasting, meaningful relationship.
  • Acknowledgment of the Offense: While the letter should focus on positive traits, it should acknowledge that the person requesting the letter has been honest. The letter should state that the writer knows about the offense. 
  • Positive Contributions: Highlight the defendant’s contributions to the community, family, or workplace, demonstrating their value and potential for positive impact.
  • Future Potential: Discuss the defendant’s aspirations and potential for rehabilitation and making amends, underscoring their commitment to a constructive future.

Strategies for Gathering Effective Letters

  • Selective Requests: Choose individuals who truly know you well and can speak authentically about your character and contributions.
  • Guidance on Content: While each letter should be in the writer’s own words, offering guidance on the aspects of your character and life that they might include can help focus their testimonies.
  • Diversity of Perspectives: Aim for a collection of letters that provide a diverse yet cohesive picture of your character, covering various aspects of your life.

Presenting the Letters to the Court

  • Organized Submission: Submit the letters in an organized manner. The defense attorney should gather the letters together, and include them as part of the attorney’s sentencing memorandum. The attorney will likely highlight key themes in these letters during the sentencing.
  • Timely Submission: Ensure that the letters are submitted in accordance with court deadlines and in a timeframe that allows the judge ample time to review them before sentencing.


Character reference letters are more than just testimonials. They should become part of a broad mitigation strategy, offering support to humanize a person standing before the court. Consider the campaign that will generate the letter. 

Experience convinces me that these letters can make a real difference, offering a multifaceted view of the individual beyond the confines of the case. On the flip side, they can be difficult for some people to generate. People facing charges in federal court may feel shame, and procrastinate in asking for letters. Or they may request letters, and writers may procrastinate, or not know how to write the letters. 

For these reasons, I encourage defendants to plan with ample time.

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