Our entire team at Prison Professors welcomes participants to our Straight-A Guide Mitigation course. We based this self-directed course on everything our team members have learned:
- Working with federal judges, federal prosecutors, and federal probation officers;
- Our personal experience of working with thousands of people who have had to prepare for sentencing; and
- Our team members have a cumulative experience of serving more than 50 years in prisons of every security level.
Consider this resource a guide, not an answer sheet. To create an effective mitigation strategy, a person must become a good storyteller. Ultimately, the author must strive to help stakeholders understand the nuances of a person’s life. That means boilerplate content will not suffice. Rather, the person must offer details, showing readers how and why a person got into this challenge, as well as what lessons the person learned from the experience.
The mitigation strategy must show that the person identifies with the victim’s loss. If you’re working through these lessons, consider the judge’s perspective:
- What has the judge heard before?
- What makes you worthy of leniency?
We understand course participants may not have resources to hire a mitigation expert. Still, they want to build a persuasive case for mercy at sentencing.
Our team members know how to improve outcomes for people facing the criminal justice system. In this initial lesson, we’ll offer:
- History on how we began the program.
- Information on why we’re convinced the program can help you.
- Insights on what we’ve learned by working with stakeholders at every level.
If you’re a participant who is familiar with our personal stories, then feel free to advance. Or if you’d like more insight, please visit our comprehensive website at prisonprofessors.com, where we feature profiles on all of our partners, including:
- Mike Berlon: Former lawyer, served five years for white collar crime.
- Wayne Boatwright: Cornell Law School grad, former lawyer, served six years.
- Lawrence Hartman: Columbia Law School grad, served 10 year sentence for white collar crime.
- Sam Mangel: Wharton Business School, served five-year sentence for white collar crime.
- Justin Paperny: USC grad, former stockbroker, served 18 months for white collar crime.
My name is Michael Santos. I made a series of bad decisions as a young man. A government investigation followed. Then a prosecutor convened a grand jury, and I faced charges that exposed me to life in prison. Despite knowing of my guilt, I went through trial. A jury convicted me, and a judge sentenced me to serve 45 years.
While serving decades in federal prison, I made a commitment to work toward reconciling with society for the bad decisions of my youth. Anyone who has an interest may read about the journey in my book:
- Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Sentence
- Download a free digital or audio version from our website at prisonprofessors.com.
Since concluding my prison term, in 2013, I’ve been working with our team members to improve outcomes for system-impacted people. Through Prison Professors and our related entities, we advocate and contribute in a number of ways, including:
- Judicial conferences retain our team members to present on what happens after a judge imposes a sentence.
- Legislative aides retain us to consider and comment on how different policies will influence the criminal justice system.
- Leaders of prison systems invite our partners to serve as keynote speakers, advisors, or program creators.
- Law firms and individuals retain us to collaborate on building mitigation strategies.
- Through our nonprofit, we create daily content to improve outcomes for people at every stage of the criminal justice system.
By working, presenting, and consulting with leaders of the criminal justice system, we’ve developed insights that benefits people who face challenges from civil or criminal law enforcement.
We do not replace the need for a criminal defense attorney. All defendants will need legal representation. Still, experience convinces us that defendants should think independently about what steps they can take to influence the process. Developing an effective mitigation plan requires:
- Preparing for the presentence investigation report and considering how to influence the process.
- Preparing for the sentencing hearing and how to make a favorable influence on the judge.
- Preparing for the sanction and considering how to influence the best possible experience in dealing with the sanction, whether it includes prison or an alternative sentence.
- Preparing for the challenges that will accompany post-release supervision.
- Preparing early for the eventual request to terminate post-release supervision.
- Preparing to resume a life of meaning and relevance after government supervision ends.
We have learned a great deal about steps defendants can take to put themselves on a course for the best possible outcome. When criminal justice leaders retain members of our team to develop and refine programs, we get the benefit of having one-on-one conversations with the stakeholder. Lessons we’ve learned from those conversations form the basis of our Sentence Mitigation Program.
We’ll share those lessons with all course participants, whether they become clients or whether they use the free content we publish through prisonprofessors.com, our app, or our social media channels.
Our programs teach strategies to influence stakeholders. We begin by urging all participants to understand that objective. Stakeholders want people who have been charged with a crime to work toward reconciling with society. Judges and prosecutors want to make communities safer. The punishments they dispense are not personal. Rather, their decisions reveal the stakeholder’s thoughts on whether a person is worthy of more, or less punishment.
No one can change the past. But any of us can make decisions that will influence how we work through the present, and influence the future. To begin a mitigation effort, introspect on the following question:
- What steps can I take today—given past circumstances—to influence the outcome I want?
A mitigation effort should show a 100% commitment to building a case that answers the question above.
Stakeholders have spoken publicly about our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program. They find it a useful tool when deliberating on whether a candidate is worthy of a downward departure at sentencing.
We encourage participants to subscribe to the Prison Professors YouTube channel or our podcasts. More than 1,000 video and audio files will validate what we’ve learned from our work with government officials that play an active role in the criminal justice system. Participants will see our work with:
- Probation officers,
- Sentencing judges, and
- Prison officials.
Through our conversations and work with those individuals, we’ve gained insight on what leaders want to hear from a defendant before sentencing. Effective mitigation, however, requires much more than talk. A person should work to build an indisputable pattern of authenticity, as we’ll show in later lessons.
What Does the Judge Know?
To start a mitigation effort, a defendant should realize that the only information a judge has is what various people have presented in court. Prosecutors will have made allegations. They base those allegations on what they learned from investigators. The prosecutors do not have any personal relationship with the defendant.
- Prosecutor may not know much other than what they’ve learned about the offense.
- Defense attorneys will have made statements.
- The judge may have heard from victims, or he may have considered other evidence.
A mitigation strategy should help others see the defendant for more than simply the criminal behavior. The strategy must concern itself with every stakeholder in the process.
For now, let’s try to keep our focus on the judge.
- What does the judge know about the defendant?
- What will differentiate one defendant from another?
Many defendants will limit their mitigation strategy to saying:
- “I’m sorry for what I’ve done.”
But saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough to move a judge. A judge will want to know how much work the defendant has put in to showing his remorse. A solid mitigation effort must persuade the judge of all the work that went into the effort. Otherwise, the judge may mistakenly infer that the defendant is simply trying to provide a canned answer, or boilerplate.
Consider an analogy from a math class back in grade school. Remember the dreadful word problems that confuse so many youngsters? To refresh your memory, here’s an example of a word problem:
- A factory makes 4,250 bars of chocolate. There were three kinds of chocolate bars—creamy, milky, and white. The number of white chocolate bars was 715 more than the number of milky chocolate bars. The number of creamy chocolate bars was 5 times the number of milky chocolate bars.
- How many creamy chocolate bars did the factory make?
The answer is 2,525. We know that answer because we looked at the answer key for the problem. Yet, if a student only wrote 2,525 in the answer box, the teacher may not give him full credit. The teacher needs to know how the student arrived at the solution.
In other words, teachers want to see the work that a student put in to solve a problem.
Like the math analogy above, a judge will want to know what work a defendant has put into his mitigation effort.
If you’re working through this course, we offer this insight because we know that many people will judge you in your future. Many of those people have read accusations that give them a biased view of your life. Consider the following examples:
- An FBI agent, or an agent from the Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS, or a DEA agent, or some other investigative agency responds to a complaint of criminal wrongdoing.
- Would you say that investigator starts with a blank slate?
- Does the investigator begin with the presumption of innocence?
- Does the investigator have any concerns about the good that a defendant has done in society?
- The investigator creates a report for a prosecutor. In that report, the investigator collaborates with a prosecutor to show an alleged crime and the prosecutor begins to architect a plan.
- Does the prosecutor have any concern about how the charge will influence the life or career of the defendant?
- What thoughts will a prosecutor have about the defendant’s family?
- What does the prosecutor want more: justice or a conviction?
- What level of energy will the prosecutor invest to show fact finders that—despite the criminal charge—the defendant has done a lot of good for the community?
- The defense attorney focuses on exonerating a defendant. She’ll look for case law and other arguments to sow seeds of doubt. Or the defense attorney may craft strategies to minimize exposure to severe sanctions.
- How many hours will the defense attorney invest in the case?
- Will the defense attorney devote those hours to master the facts, laws, and rules of evidence, or getting to know the personal characteristics of the defendant?
- If the defense attorney focuses on facts of the crime, how will stakeholders know anything about the defendant?
Judges want the defendant to reveal personal information that will not come from the criminal investigator, from the prosecutor, or from the defense attorney. From our work as policy advisors, we know that judges give a lot of thought to sentencing. Yet from talking with those judges, we also know that judges want more information. They want to know why the defendant is worthy of mercy.
Without insight into the defendant’s personal story, the judge will only know about the criminal charge. Unfortunately, during our conversations with judges, we’ve heard them complain that defendants come to Court woefully unprepared to support a request for leniency. They offer lip-service to remorse, or boilerplate explanations, such as:
- I’m sorry for what I did.
- Please forgive me.
- I’m going to miss my kids and family.
- Since my arrest, God has shown me the way.
- Please give me a low sentence.
The above statements may be sincere. But an effective mitigation strategy must provide the judge with a solid understanding of how the defendant has grown from this experience. As with the algebraic word problems in the analogy mentioned above, a defendant should do more than provide the answer. The defendant must show the work he put in to get there. Defendants do well when they can show why they’re worthy of mercy.
Every defendant says he is sorry. Every defendant asks for a lower sentence. Our job is to build a systemic pathway for a judge to grant mercy. A defendant’s responses to the following questions represent the core of any effective mitigation strategy:
- What has the defendant learned from this experience?
- In what ways has the defendant identified with victims?
- What steps has the defendant taken to make things right?
- Why can we be sure the defendant will not come into the criminal justice system again?
- Why should the Court show mercy on this defendant?
As our many published interviews show, we’ve built a solid team to design and deploy an effective mitigation strategy. Our work appears on several websites, including prisonprofessors.com and WhiteCollarAdvice.com. Law-enforcement professionals endorse our program and issue purchase orders because:
- They want more people who go through the system to emerge successfully, as law-abiding, contributing citizens.
Our team never asks anyone to say or do anything that we did not do. Each member of our team at Prison Professors continues to live by the lessons we present in this program. Since we know what it takes to prepare for the best possible outcome, we ask each of our clients to do the work. Every person is different. When assigning our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program, we take those differentiators into consideration:
- Some people did not finish high school. Others hold advanced degrees.
- Some people struggle with financial resources. Others have an abundance of financial resources.
- Some people face charges for crimes that include violence. Others face charges for white-collar crimes.
- Some people do not have a criminal history. Others have faced sentencing hearings in the past.
- Some people have experienced significant trauma that may have had an influence on actions that led to the criminal charge. Others have childhood experiences that may mitigate their sentence.
With those differentiators in mind, we cannot create a boilerplate mitigation program. Every individual has a unique story. To get on a track for the best possible outcome, a person must craft a story to build a case for mercy. Stakeholders may be cynical, including:
- The investigators on the case.
- The Probation Officer who will write the Presentence Investigation Report.
- The Judge who will impose the sentence.
- The prison officials that will determine placement, or custody-and-classification categories.
- The prison officials who will determine whether a person qualifies for early-release programs.
- The Probation Officer who will assign levels of liberty in the future.
- The Judge who will determine whether the person is suitable for early termination of Supervised Release.
Our mitigation course takes each of those stakeholders into consideration. For that reason, we encourage participants to learn about the history of the Straight-A Guide. Learn about the group of people that make up our team at prisonprofessors.com. We recommend that participants read the following books as a primer:
- Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term
- This book shows the origin of our program, and it shows why it’s essential to visualize the best possible outcome. It shows how leading a values-based, goal-oriented life can sow seeds for reconciliation with society. The book also provides insight on how to sustain a high-level of discipline and energy while growing through struggle.
- Prison: My 8,344th Day
- This book shows how daily decisions show a commitment to success through prison and beyond.
- Success After Prison: How I Built Assets Worth $1,000,000 Within Two Years of Release After 26 Years in Prison (And How You Can Succeed, Too!)
- This book shows the result of values-based, goal-oriented decisions. The strategies we teach do more than lead people through prison. Those strategies also put people on a path to success on the other side of the journey.
We recommend this reading list for a purpose. We want participants to have a solid foundation on the principles behind our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program and see how it works. The books reveal reasons behind each task that we invite our participants to complete. We’re striving to document a journey. That documentation will show others why a successful participant is worthy of the best possible outcome.
Those who feel that they have a solid foundation of our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program should begin working through our ten modules. When responding to questions, please keep all stakeholders in mind.
Participants that have worked with members of our team on a personal narrative should have some idea of what it means to work through our modules. In our narratives, we always include an abbreviated version of introspection. Introspection is the start of any mitigation effort. The remainder of the program is much more comprehensive.
Our program begins with a full understanding of values. The books we recommend show what it means to define success.
A mitigation effort begins with a clear understanding of the best possible outcome. All participants would like to change the past. We would welcome opportunities to turn back the clock. We could then make decisions that would leave us out of the crosshairs of the criminal justice system.
But we can’t.
We must live in the world as it exists—not as we would like it to be. With that in mind, we must define success as the best possible outcome.
What is it?
In Earning Freedom, we show how essential it is to change our thinking. Instead of thinking of our own problems, we think about the people we’re going to encounter in the future.
- Who are those people that we want to encounter in the future?
- How will the decisions we’ve made in the past influence the way that those people will judge us?
- What steps can we take today to influence the way that those people will judge us?
These questions help develop a clear definition of success. If we know the different ways we want to define success in our future, we can begin to craft a workable plan. We cannot undo our past decisions. But if we’re on this pathway to success, we can show how we’re charting a course to reconcile with society. We can show how our decisions today will keep us out of the criminal justice system in the future.
In the end, we should create a document that reflects our authentic commitment to success. The mitigation effort we create must show that we’re honest. It must show that we’ve been honest with the people we anticipate meeting in the future. As we make decisions, we must show that we’re not thinking about our own problems. Instead, we’re thinking about the people we want to influence in our future.
- What is the judge thinking about me today?
- What does the judge know about my commitment to living a law-abiding life?
- How can I persuade a judge that I’ve given a great deal of thought to the influences that led to my criminal conviction?
Answering those questions requires us to think a great deal about how we got into the predicament we’re in today. In our books that we list above, we show the approach that our team takes.
But this mitigation effort isn’t about our team.
By using this Program, we show a participant how to build a case to persuade a judge and others how hard you’re working to build a better future. Show that you’re taking a methodical, deliberate path to prepare for success.
Think of the following exercise as a start. It is an accelerator that will bring new levels of success to your life. You’ll also find that by using the deliberate process, you will begin rebuilding your life.
Task: Try to see yourself from the perspective of others. With that end in mind, please write your responses to the following questions.
- Who are the victims in my crime?
- What role did I play in this crime?
- How did I get involved in this offense?
- What was I thinking when I made the decision that exposed me to these charges?
- What am I striving to accomplish by working through this exercise?
You’re about to make the biggest sale of your life. You must work toward influencing how others you will meet in the future judge you. As of right now, those people may be biased. They may base their judgments on decisions you made at the worst time in your life. Through our Program, we’re going to show the work that you put in. We’re going to show how you’re architecting a plan that will lead to your reconciliation with society. By going through this work, we can show how you did the following:
- You visualized the best possible outcome.
- You crafted a plan that would take you from where you are, to where you want to go.
- You put priorities in place.
- You executed your plan every day.
This plan is the essence of our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program. Put the work in. Rely upon our team to guide you along the way.
As I began my process of showing why I’m worthy of the lowest possible sentence, I’ve followed the Resilient Courses path. That strategy required that I give considerable thought to the challenges that I’m facing with the criminal justice system. Rather than thinking about my own problems, I wanted to think about how my actions influenced others in our community. It’s an ongoing investment in introspection. I’m showing my commitment to this path by responding to initial questions from the 10-part course.
While participants work through the following questions, start with mantra:
- Instead of thinking about me, I’m thinking about others. I am thinking about how others define me today—my responses will influence how stakeholders will perceive me at various stages in the future:
- How do the people that investigated my crime view me?
- With the evidence that he has seen, what does the prosecutor think about me as a human being?
- What thoughts do my victims have about me?
- How have my actions influenced the lives of others?
- In what ways have my actions influenced the community where I live?
- What steps can I take today to work toward reconciling with society and making things right?
- With the information that he has, what is the judge thinking about my character as a human being?
- What do others know about the influences that led to where I am right now?
- If others knew more about the influences in my life, how would they perceive me?
- Given the decisions I’ve made in the past, what is the best possible outcome for my life in the months, years, and decades ahead?