Setting Goals for Sentence Mitigation 

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Our team at Prison Professors strives to teach people how to advocate for themselves if they’re going through any stage of the criminal justice system. We want them to learn techniques that will lead to the lowest possible sentence, and to liberty at the soonest possible time. When they emerge from prison, we want them to reacclimate to society, ready to function with their dignity intact. 

In the first module, we emphasized the importance of defining success. Your definition of success will articulate the values by which you profess to live. But identifying your values is only a first step. Remember that we must show our work. We must show the deliberate steps we’re taking to become the success that we want to become. And we’re always thinking about the people that we want to influence in our future. 

  • Who are the people that will make decisions concerning my liberty?
  • How will those people influence prospects for my best possible outcome?
  • What steps can I take to influence their decisions in a favorable way?

Each of our mitigation experts have gone through government investigations, criminal prosecutions, sanctions that include prison or community-based sentences that did not include prison. Our experiences convince us that people can engineer pathways that will advance prospects for mercy.

People facing criminal charges should not minimize the importance of crafting an effective and comprehensive mitigation strategy. The defense attorney cannot accomplish this task. Each person must build a personal story to persuade stakeholders why the person is an ideal candidate for leniency.

  • What makes you different from every other person that stands before a judge asking for mercy?

When our team members work with individuals that want to position themselves for leniency, we encourage them to begin by identifying values. Defining success is a prerequisite to the mitigation effort. The next prerequisite includes the clearly defined goals that each person must set. 

Think about how these two prerequisites of identifying values and setting goals can influence the outcome you want to create. Satisfying both prerequisites is essential to starting down the Prison Professors’ Straight-A Guide, mitigation strategy. 

Driver’s License:

To illustrate the importance of prerequisites, we draw attention to the process of obtaining a driver’s license. Think back to when you first got your driver’s license. Before you could receive your driver’s license, the state required you to complete some prerequisites.

  • In some cases, you had to go through a class. 
  • You had to take a written exam to show that you knew the rules of the road. 
  • Then you had to take a driving exam—showing that you knew how to drive. 

By advancing through your prerequisites, the state issued your driver’s license. 

Similarly, crafting an effective mitigation strategy requires the same work through prerequisites. First you need to advance through the values module. The values module should show your work. 

By responding to the questions in the previous lesson, you show that you’ve taken deliberate steps to identify the best possible outcome. You’ve introspected. You’ve reflected on all the decisions in your life. Those decisions influenced choices you made along the way. 

This strategy helps your judge consider more than only the crime or conviction. The crime isn’t the only factor at sentencing. Your judge and others will consider your life in its entirety. There were many steps along the way that influenced what and who you became. Similarly, there will be many steps in your future that will influence who and what you become. 

A judge will want to know how much thought you’ve invested into this process. To the extent that you can show how much work you’ve done, you can influence how that judge perceives you. You can overcome biases. Your work will show that you’re more than the criminal charge. 

The values show how you define success. The goals you set will show that you’re doing more than simply defining success. You’re also contemplating a pathway, showing that you’re more than “happy talk.” A good mitigation strategy will show that you’re working toward becoming the person you want to become. 

What does that mean? 

Again, we offer an analogy. 

Your Mitigation Strategy is Your Personal Development Plan:

Think of a building project. Drive by any construction site at the earliest stage. What do you see? 

  • You may see excavators. 
  • You may see pipes that contractors will install underground. 
  • You may see lumber and blocks and steel. 

No one will see those building materials at the conclusion of the project. Just like no one can see all the work that went into the project before there was any construction site. 

To create a result, a developer had to architect a plan. A developer had to visualize the building he wanted to create. He had to craft a plan and set many small goals along the way. He had to execute his plan flawlessly. Consider some of the smaller individual goals that go into a development process: 

  • A developer identifies a market need.
  • A developer does some calculations to determine the revenues that a building could potentially generate.
  • A developer completes further calculations to determine how much it will cost to produce a building.
  • A developer writes all these factors out and makes a persuasive presentation to prospective investors or lenders.
  • A developer secures the financing that will lead to the project’s completion.
  • A developer then executes the plan.

All those individual goals take place before anyone sees any building materials. And once the developer completes the project, no one will see the building materials that were necessary along the way. 

Mitigation Efforts:

Effectively, a mitigation effort uses the same model as a builder uses to develop a real estate project. But we’re not striving to persuade lenders or investors to buy into the structure we want to build. We’re striving to persuade prosecutors and judges. Expect them to be cynical. We want them to see us for the people we say we can become. We’re developing ourselves and we want those who judge us to believe.

Our exercise on values may help to persuade judges that we’re growing from this experience. We can show that we’re giving considerable amounts of thought to what we’ve done. Our investment in writing out our values helps us show that we’re visualizing the best possible outcome. We’re defining success. We can help judges see that we’re worthy of mercy. That’s what our exercise on values accomplished. With our goals exercise, we will show the specific building blocks. 

To remain consistent with the principles of our program, we’ll offer an example from one of our books that we recommended in the first module: 

In Success After Prison, I wrote that I wanted to share the strategies that empowered me through 26 years in prison. I wrote that many people who needed his work would be cynical. They were in struggle, going through a criminal prosecution or a prison term. To persuade them of the validity of our Straight-A Guide Program, I wrote that I would need to document success. And building financial resources could be one way to define success.

As I drove with my wife from the federal prison in Atwater to the halfway house in San Francisco, Carole used her iPhone to log into the Credit Karma app. She showed me that I had a zero-zero-zero credit score. I told her that in spite of that credit score, I would become successful. Despite the non-existent credit score, I told her that within five years I would control $1,000,000 worth of assets. To achieve that goal, I would use the same principles of the Straight-A Guide that powered me through 26 years in prison. 

  • I visualized success as building assets worth $1,000,000 within five years of my release date: August 13, 2018. 
  • I created a plan that would deliver me from being non-existent in the credit world to achieving his success within five years. 
  • I put priorities in place, understanding that success comes with one step at a time. 
  • I executed the plan each day. 

In the rest of our book, readers will see how identifying values and setting clear goals allow people to exceed the goals they set. 

The tiny, step-by-step goals that I set persuaded others to believe in me. The values and goals persuaded others to see me for what I could become. The fact that I was in prison for 26 years didn’t matter. Instead, I persuaded others to see me differently.

Those were the same strategies that I used to get through prison. 

To advance your mitigation effort, we need you to set clear goals. Those clear goals must show your commitment to the values by which you profess to live. 

  • What are those values that you clearly defined as being consistent with the best possible outcome in your life?
  • What clear goals can you set to show your commitment to those values?
  • Will achieving those clear goals make your commitment to the values self-evident?

Rely upon this strategy of defining success and setting goals to craft your own mitigation efforts. If you’ve taken a step to identify your values, the next step will be to write out the clear goals. Those clear goals will reflect your commitment to the values. Your goals should show the judge how much thought you’ve put into becoming the person that you say you’re going to become. 

SMART Goals:

When you’re writing your goals, we encourage you to follow the principle of SMART goals. People in your future will assess whether you’re authentic or not. Your ability to tell your story will influence how people assess you. Are you telling a believable story? By setting SMART goals, you can tell a more convincing story. And if you tell a more convincing story, you can influence how people see or perceive you. 

Follow along to learn the principles of a SMART goal: 

S: You should make each goal specific.

M: You should measure progress toward the completion of each goal.

A: You should set goals that require action.

R: You should show why your goals are realistic.

T: You should set clear timelines to complete your goals.

By identifying the SMART goals that you set, you can show your judge that you’re not simply speaking about values. Instead, you’re working toward success as you’ve engineered success. And remember that success for one person does not have to mirror or match how another person defines success. We define success with the values we’ve set. Our goals show our commitment to those values. 

Your mitigation effort should include very specific goals that adhere to the SMART principles above. When setting those goals, think about the people you want to influence with your mitigation effort. You may want to influence the following people: 

  1. A federal judge who wants to know why you’re worthy of a downward departure and mercy at sentencing.
  2. A prosecutor who likely will object to requests for mercy or leniency.
  3. A probation officer who likely will parrot the prosecutor’s version of events.
  4. A defense attorney will make a sentencing argument.
  5. Various prison officials who will determine whether you qualify for programs that can advance your release date.
  6. Officials in a halfway house who will determine what type of liberty you can have to work.
  7. A probation officer who will determine how much liberty you can have in your future, when you’re on Supervised Release.
  8. A federal judge who may determine whether you’re worthy of relief at some point in your future.
  9. Prospective employers who may consider hiring you.
  10. Prospective creditors who may consider doing business with you.

It would be a mistake to think that a mitigation effort only influences the sentencing hearing. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system has far-reaching consequences. Ramifications begin before the judge imposes a sentence. In many cases, those ramifications extend long after the person serves a sentence. For that reason, our team at Prison Professors recommends that all people invest themselves fully in a mitigation effort.

As we stated earlier, an effective mitigation effort begins with prerequisites. Those prerequisites start with the following: 

  • Identify success with values,
  • Set SMART goals that reflect a commitment to success, as defined by values.

Marshall Goldsmith, a business professor and executive coach, taught many lessons that validate the importance of this strategy. Essentially, the title from one of professor Goldsmith’s book summarizes this lesson:

  • What Got You Here Won’t Get You There in Sales

Basically, Professor Goldsmith helps us realize that we neither fail nor succeed in one step. Both success and failure materialize from a series of small, incremental decisions and actions. Our goal-setting strategy should reflect this reality. We must show decision makers in our future that we’ve thought through our plan. We must show the efforts we’re making toward preparing for a law-abiding, contributing life. 

That means we must give considerable thought to how our decisions come with opportunity costs. A SWOT analysis can help with the goals that we set in our mitigation effort. With a SWOT analysis, we consider strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. 

We must consider what strengths we have today.

  • How can we use our strengths to overcome challenges we’re going to face in the future? 
  • We must consider our weaknesses.
  • In what ways will our weaknesses influence ability to overcome challenges that we’re going to face in the future? 
  • We must open our eyes to opportunities.
  • What opportunities do we have available to us now that will advance our prospects for a successful outcome? 

We must be alert to threats.

  • What types of decisions can threaten my prospects for success, as I’ve defined success with my values? 

In your mitigation effort, show the judge how much thought you’ve put into the plan that you’re creating. Remember our motto at 

  • Visualize success. 
  • Create a plan. 
  • Set priorities. 
  • Execute the plan.

In your mitigation package, do your best to show that you understand this concept. From our perspective, the right decision at the wrong time is the wrong decision. 

What does that mean? 

It means that in your mitigation package, you must convince your judge that you’re making the right decisions at the right time. In other words, set priorities. Without setting priorities, you threaten prospects for success. A well-thought-out strategy will influence your judge. It will show your level of commitment to the plan. The stronger the plan, the more likely you will persuade a possibly cynical judge that you can succeed. 

Judges have frequently told us how defendants can hurt their prospects for leniency at sentencing. If a defendant doesn’t know how to set priorities, the judges have said, they do not believe that the defendant has given adequate thought to his problems. When defendants talk about saving the world, or saving other people, or doing anything like that, they will not serve themselves well—unless the defendant has built a plausible case that could support such a statement. 

Judges have told us: 

I don’t want to hear a defendant talking about how he is going to save others. Before he can save others, the defendant had better show me that he knows how to heal the harm that he has caused. He had better show me that he can heal his own thinking that led to his problem.

In our book Earning Freedom, I described how Socrates influenced my definition of success. I understood that, ultimately, my judge would impose my sentence. Regardless of what sentence the judge imposed, I intended to return to society unscathed by the experience. I intended to be able to walk into any room without concern of others judging him. To succeed, I defined the values and goals that would guide my adjustment: 


  • Education: I professed to work toward earning educational credentials.
  • Contribution: I professed that I would work to contribute to society.
  • Network: I professed that I would develop relationships with mentors who could guide me.

The goals that I set matched the values above. Those goals were SMART, as defined below:


  • Within 10 years, I pledged to earn a university degree.
  • Within 10 years, I pledged to become a published author.
  • Within 10 years, I pledged to bring 10 mentors into my life.

Our team at Prison Professors encourages people to advance through the prerequisites of our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program. If you’re working through this course, that means we expect you to identify the values that define your life. Then you must set the goals that will make your commitment to the values self-evident. 

We encourage you to align your values and goals together. Then, we encourage you to continue with the Straight-A Guide Program. 

Some questions may prompt you as you prepare your mitigation package:

  1. In what ways do the goals that you’re setting reflect your commitment to the values by which you profess to live?
  1. How will the goals you’re setting today influence your life in five years?
  1. In what ways will the goals that I’m setting today position me to achieve new goals in the future?
  1. In what ways do the goals that I’m setting today reflect my commitment to reconciling with society?
  1. How do the goals that I’m setting today show that I am working to make things right with the victims of my crime?
  1. How will I measure progress toward the goals that I’m setting?
  1. Why have I learned about myself that puts me in a better position to achieve the goals that I’ve set for my future?
  1. Why will working toward the goals that I’ve set make me into a better citizen?
  1. In what ways will achieving the goals I’m setting show my commitment to living as a law-abiding, contributing citizen?
  1. Why do the goals that I’m setting advance my request for mercy at sentencing?

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