Aspiration and Sentence Mitigation 

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In developing your mitigation strategy, think about your aspirations. What do you want?

Our team of mitigation experts at Prison Professors asks this question in all of our courses. The Straight-A Guide teaches strategies that may lead participants closer to mercy at sentencing and put those who use it on a path to best possible outcomes.

Participants should think about what they aspire to become. If you’re facing a sentencing hearing, consider:

  • How will you use your past experiences, and your introspection, to shape the rest of your life? 
  • Where have you been and where are you going? 

Try to answer that question in a manner that will influence those who judge you. 

It’s always crucial to think about the people you’re striving to influence when crafting your sentence mitigation strategy. 

  • Who will you meet in the future and how will they perceive you? 

If you’re going through this course, think about how stakeholders in the criminal justice system perceive you. For now, their perspective be limited to seeing you as a criminal defendant. They may want to base their perception of you on the worst decision you made in your life. You have a history of contribution, but they do not consider the positive attributes of your life. They think of the negative attributes that will bolster their case.

Regardless of how you feel about yourself, learn more about the lens through which those people will view you. For some people, that may be a very difficult undertaking. 

  • What perceptions do you think those people have of you? 
  • What experience do those people have of working with defendants? 
  • In what ways are you working to show that you’re different from other defendants those people are used to encountering?

Unfortunately, many defendants fail to contemplate such questions. Understandably, they view the world from their own lens. They do not comprehend that unless they do something to change perceptions, others will view them only for decisions they made that led to the worst time in the defendant’s life. 

In truth, a defendant’s perception isn’t relevant in a sentence-mitigation strategy. Few people care what a defendant thinks about himself. 

Most defendants would like others to view them from the same lens that a parent, or a loved one would view them. Yet defendants don’t need to convince a parent or a loved one that they are worthy of mercy. Defendants need to influence or convince stakeholders of the criminal justice system—and those people, as a group, are a cynical lot.  

To prevail in a mitigation strategy, begin from the perspective of those stakeholders. 

  • What preconceptions and prejudices do they have about criminal defendants? 
  • What steps can we take to present a different perspective?  

We craft a better mitigation strategy when we consider our life from various perspectives. 

  • We need to persuade others that we understand ourselves and that we understand how others see us. 
  • We need to show that we’ve invested the time and energy to learn from those observations.
  • We must show that we’ve learned from those introspections and that we’ve taken steps to improve. 
  • We must show that those improvements will lead us to the people we aspire to become. 

Those aspirations should lead others to believe that we’re on a better path and that we’re less likely to ever become involved with the criminal justice system again. 

Consider four different lenses to assess who we are, or what we are:

Lens 1: What do others know about us, and what do we know about ourselves?

Lens 2: What do others know about us, that we may not have considered about ourselves?

Lens 3: What do others not know about us, that we know about ourselves?

Lens 4: What remains unknown about ourselves by others, and by ourselves? 

  • How can we use such questions to demonstrate that we’ve thought long and hard about our place in the world, and how we got here?
  • How can we use such questions to persuade others that we’ve grown from our experiences?

Our work in responding to these different questions can help us. We could write one-sentence answers. But that won’t do much to show how hard we’ve worked to “fix” the type of thinking that judges may believe led to our demise. 

We must think critically, showing that we’re not only concerned about what is happening to us. We’re also concerned with how our actions, behaviors, and decisions influenced other people and the world in which we live. The harder we work, the more successful we become at building a persuasive case to show how deeply we’ve introspected. 

Participants in this course may notice that we spend considerable amounts of time on introspections. Our research with sentencing judges convinces us that exercises in introspection are the most effective strategies defendants can use to show that they’re worthy of mercy.

We want a judge to know that we’ve thought through our decisions extensively. We want a judge to know that we’re different from the other people who came before the bench for sentencing. This is the definition of empathy. When we show that we fully grasp our relationship to others, we advance arguments that we’re worthy of mercy. 

Defendants must build these persuasive cases. They cannot rely upon counsel to build those types of cases for them. Lawyers may build strong cases that show how to apply guidelines appropriately, what charges are appropriate, and how to interpret case law or statute.

Those analytical strategies are crucial to the sentencing process. Yet the lawyers cannot help a judge grasp the mindset, thought patterns, or remorse of a defendant as well as a defendant can do with an effective personal mitigation strategy. Judges know that lawyers know how to think, introspect, and strategize. Yet the judge wants to know more about the defendants they are about to sentence to prison. 

Judges want to know how hard the defendant has worked to understand the severity of his crime, and what steps the defendant is taking to change thinking patterns. A judge knows that no one can change the past. 

Many defendants give the following line at sentencing:

  • “If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it. I’m not really a bad person and I don’t want you to think that I am.” 

That type of expression doesn’t do much to persuade a judge to be merciful. To influence a judge, defendants must show that they’ve changed thinking patterns. 

The following exercise may help participants build a persuasive case that they’ve changed thinking patterns, and they understand their relationship to others in society. 

  • Begin by considering what we know about ourselves and what we think others know about us. 
  • Show that we’ve thought about how those two perceptions are compatible. 
  • Consider how they differ and what we’ve learned by thinking about them. 

Briefly consider the following 50 adjectives:

  • How would you use those adjectives to define your life?
  • How would others use those adjectives to define your life?
  • What would others agree with in your self-assessment?
  • In what ways do others see you differently from the way that you see yourself?
  • In what ways do you see yourself differently from how others see you?
  • In what ways can you show that you’re striving to build a life that would cause both you and others to see you in this way?

Those are big questions. We can use those questions to build entire stories. And when we use those questions to write the story, we can influence the way that others see us. We persuade others how deeply we’ve thought about our lives, and how deeply we’ve thought about the life we want to lead in our future. 

  • What skills and talents do I have?
  • In what ways have I used those skills and talents in the past?
  • What are my learning styles?
  • What are my enterprise skills?
  • What type of work-role preferences do I have?
  • Am I good in a crisis or do I provoke crisis?
  • Am I emotionally intelligent?
  • Why types of people don’t like me?
  • What types of people like me?
  • Am I aware of what stresses me out?
  • Am I aware of my fundamental values?
  • Am I self-conscious in the sense that I really have self-understanding? 

Perhaps it would be helpful to provide examples that you may contrast. The following exercise may show how we can use those types of questions to influence a judge. We’ll compare and contrast a fictional white-collar offender with a man convicted of third-degree murder, or manslaughter. 

Let’s start by assessing a fictional letter to a judge from a white-collar offender. We’ll use the letter as an example. Then, let’s dissect the letter to compare and contrast the offender’s self-assessment with how those in the criminal justice system may view the offender. Then we’ll consider the life story of a person who was charged and convicted of manslaughter, which is an unintentional killing. 

First, let’s look at the white-collar offender. 

Example 1: The White-Collar Offender:

Dear Judge,

I am sorry for what I did and I hope that you will see me for the type of person that I really am. Although I pleaded guilty to this crime, my conviction doesn’t reflect the type of person that others know me to be.

I graduated from a prestigious university, and I come from a wonderful family. My parents gave me every opportunity to succeed. I am not like other people who come into the criminal justice system. In fact, I’m not a criminal at all and everyone who knows me doesn’t think I should be going to prison at all.

Prison is not necessary in my case because I would never do this type of crime again. I do not abuse drugs or alcohol and I do not associate with other criminals. I am a kind and considerate person, but I made a mistake, and I am sorry.

I don’t need to be punished further.

I am able bodied and there are many ways that I could repay society for the mistakes I made. After all, I accept full responsibility. The crime that I committed isn’t totally my fault because what I did was common practice in my industry. In fact, our firm encouraged us to use the tactics I used. They paid us bonuses when we brought in more business. To bring in more business, we all took similar steps and our firm encouraged us to be aggressive. In my case, the steps led to a guilty plea, but everyone in my industry does the same thing. I pleaded guilty to the crime because I wanted to put this matter behind me and get on with my life. 

I am well educated and I’m a hard worker, and I have so much to offer society. But still, I’m remorseful for what I did because I should have known better. This crime is really out of character for me and it is not like me to be in this position. 

My plans are to give back to society because I want to make a difference. Since I pleaded guilty, I’ve been going to church. Through prayer, I’ve learned that part of my mistakes came because I quit paying attention to God. I’m not going to make this kind of mistake again. I’ve been going to church and volunteering to teach the kids. Our future is all about the children. I’m going to use this experience, along with my talents and gifts to mentor more kids to make better decisions. I’ve also been volunteering at the homeless shelter.  When this is behind me, I will continue working in my profession and paying taxes. 

Your honor, my wife and kids don’t deserve what’s going to happen to me. I’ve been the sole earner for our family and if I go to prison, they’re going to suffer tremendously. There is really no benefit to sending me to prison when I could be working to teach others, volunteering, or doing some type of community service to make things right. I will never make this type of mistake again. 

For these reasons, I ask that you spare me imprisonment and sentence me to community service or probation, where I can do better for society. 


Joe White-collar Offender

To go through the exercise, respond to the following questions:

  • What would you say that Joe’s letter reveals about how he sees himself?
  • What would a judge think about Joe after reading his letter?
  • Identify how the above letter may lead a judge to form a perception about Joe that Joe would never think about himself?
  • What qualities may Joe have and know about that are not reflected in the above letter, which would mean that the judge doesn’t know?
  • In what ways does the above letter show that Joe has worked to explore areas of this thinking patterns that led to his demise?
  • In what ways does the above letter show that Joe is putting himself on a pathway to avoid future problems with the criminal justice system—from Joes’ perspective?
  • In what ways does the above letter show that Joe is putting himself on a pathway to avoid future problems with the criminal justice system—from the judge’s perspective?

By working through the above questions, a participant can develop a more effective strategy in advocating for himself. Try to judge Joe White-collar Offender from Joe’s perspective. Then judge Joe in the way that stakeholder’s in the criminal justice system will view him. 

Consider the following table as an example:

1.     What does Joe’s letter reveal about how he sees himself?Joe isn’t a criminal. He pleaded guilty, but it’s really not his fault. Everyone was doing it. He comes from a good family and he has a lot of good friends. He should not go to prison because prison is for people who use drugs and think like criminals.
2.     What does the judge think about Joe?Joe lacks empathy. He only thinks about himself and he does not think about how his crimes have impacted society or the victims of the case. Joe has not learned anything from this experience and he is not worthy of mercy.
3.     How do the two perceptions differ?They are utterly irreconcilable. Joe will walk away thinking that he is a victim and everyone is against him. The judge will view Joe as being a typical narcissistic and arrogant offender who is beyond hope for redemption.
4.     What does Joe know that the judge doesn’t know?Joe is truly remorseful for what he has done and he wants others to see him as a good person.
5.     How does the letter show that Joe has worked to change his thinking patterns?The letter fails to reveal that Joe has changed anything.
6.     What does the letter show that Joe is thinking about his future, from Joe’s perspective?Joe thinks that by saying he is sorry and that he will work in the same profession, the judge will see him as a good person who should not go to prison. Perhaps they can become golfing buddies and get over this misunderstanding.
7.     What does the judge think that Joe is thinking about his future?The judge thinks that Joe has flawed thinking patterns and that he is a likely candidate for recidivism. The judge will think about the victims of the crime, society, and protecting others from Joe by locking him in prison to prevent him from committing more crimes in the future.

Example 2: The Man Convicted of Manslaughter:

Compare and contrast the remorse letter that Joe White-collar Offender wrote with the story presented by Titan Gilroy. We feature Titan on our podcast at the following link: 

Although we encourage participants to watch and learn from Titan’s story, we can summarize what Titan said below. 

In the interview, Titan Gilroy tells the story of how he went into the criminal justice system and what steps he took to change his life. As a child, Titan says that he was poor and insecure while growing up in Hawaii. Others bullied him. To build self-esteem, Titan learned how to fight. He admired people who were good fighters. A mentor noticed that he had talent and the mentor began to train Titan. 

Through hard work and training, Titan became a skilled boxer, winning Golden Gloves competitions. Then he had opportunities to train as a professional prize fighter. Titan talks about the temperament and aggression that builds as one trains to become a prize fighter. That temperament and aggression doesn’t only stay in the ring, he said, but it can stay with an individual. At least Titan says that aggression stayed with him, revealing a high-level of emotional intelligence. 

While in a bar, Titan got into an altercation with someone. Titan’s temperament and aggression led him to punch the person. Because of Titan’s training and power, the punch had a devastating outcome, as the person died. 

Authorities charged Titan with manslaughter and he went to prison. 

Following Titan’s release from prison, he began training to resume his career as a prize fighter. 

While in that training mode, Titan came close to another altercation. He didn’t do anything wrong. Yet the result of his background put him dangerously close to being arrested again. When he came close to an arrest, he realized something about himself. He introspected and his introspections led him to make some deliberate changes. As long as Titan trained as a fighter, he would continue to feed his aggression. He also understood that others would always judge him for his past. Titan had to make a change. 

Titan then describes how he walked away from his dream of building a career as a professional prize fighter. Sensing that if he lived around people who had an influence on his career as a fighter, he would be vulnerable. Accordingly, Titan moved to get away from the people he knew. 

Titan searched for any type of minimum-wage job that he could find. He found a job that required him to clean up in a machinist shop. The shop was loud and dirty. But Titan describes how he applied himself and how he devoted time to learn. He build a career as a machinist. Then he built his own machine shop. He employed scores of people and generated millions of dollars in revenue. Then he describes how he wanted to improve society, so he invested countless hours to create courses that would teach others how to become machinists.  Despite becoming a successful businessman, Titan measured his success by how he helped others become successful. 

In the interview, Titan shows us a great deal. He shows a very high level of emotional intelligence. He reveals how his thinking changed. Instead of seeing the world through his own lens, he introspected. Those introspections helped to change his thinking patterns and to change his life. For his entire life, Titan aspired to be a world-class prize fighter. But his introspections required him to change his aspirations. 

Through the interview, we can see that Titan asked many questions. Learn from Titan’s story by responding to the following questions: 

  1. What did Titan think about the ways that others would perceive him?
  2. What did Titan think about stressors in his life?
  3. What didn’t Titan know about himself before he began to introspect?
  4. What did Titan learn about himself, that he didn’t know prior to his introspection?
  5. What didn’t others know about Titan before he began to change his thinking patterns?
  6. How did Titan’s introspection lead to a change his life?
  7. How does Titan tell the story that would cause others to see his change?
  8. If someone were judging Titan, would they be influenced by the crime he committed, or the way that his introspections changed his behavior?
  9. When you compare and contrast Titan’s story of being a convicted killer versus that of Joe White-collar Offender, which character seems more worthy of your empathy?
  10. In what ways can you use Titan’s story and the story of Joe White-Collar Offender to build a case for mercy?

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