It is the exceedingly rare sentencing where I do not receive and read letters of support. I roughly estimate that I have read between 30,000 and 40,000 letters over the past twenty-three years. In one case alone, I read 107 letters.
For some very odd and unknown reason in our district, the Northern District of Iowa, these letters have always been referred to by everyone but me as “unsolicited letters.” That always makes me chuckle, because I, and my colleagues nation-wide, do receive unsolicited letters, but they start very differently than the letters on behalf of offenders. My favorite was years ago and received just before Christmas. Here is how it started:
Dear Judge Bennett,
I hope you nigger loving anti-American communist Jew lover have a nice Christmas.
It went downhill from there.*
So much for the digression. Judges, like all folks, are idiosyncratic, so my views on letters of support are simply my own views. I find that these letters can be exceptionally important and even crucial in framing a sentence that is sufficient but not greater than necessary. But more than half of the letters are next to worthless, and sometimes counter-productive.
I would think it is the role of the guiding hand of counsel to review letters and weed out the ones that are likely to be unhelpful or counter-productive. Here is a recent example from an eight-year-old son of a serial pedophile sex offender facing a substantial mandatory minimum.
Please send my Daddy home on probation. He is the best Dad in the world.
Really, I wonder? So here are my bullet points to separate good letters from poor and unhelpful ones. The letter should:
- explain how, and how long, the person knows the offender
- describe the qualities of the offender that the writer wants me to consider, with personal examples
- acknowledge the offender’s wrongdoing (unless the offender is maintaining their innocence on appeal) and why they still have a positive view of the offender
- discuss reasons for leniency with examples, e.g. her community service; his multiple tours of duty in Enduring Freedom
- be factual where possible, giving reasons for mercy and not just a blanket plea for mercy (I already know the offender wants as little time as possible)
- provide a factual basis for genuine remorse – if that exists
- provide a factual basis for a plan when the offender is released on TSR (actually I have never received this kind of letter)
The letter should not:
- tell me what they think the sentence (usually probation even when that is not possible) should be. I bristle at this and it often causes me to disregard or minimize the contents of the letter
- minimize the offenders’ crime, unless there are specific facts that would support this
- make the blanket statement that the offender has learned her lesson and doesn’t need to go to prison — but could explain why the offender has genuine remorse and specific reasons why she is unlikely to reoffend
- tell me the offender will miss the graduation, birthdays, and weddings of children, etc. (I already know that and the offender wasn’t concerned about that when they were slinging kilos of meth)
In sum, I would be more impressed with a letter from a neighbor who knows the offender well than from some well-known politician who likely doesn’t know the offender but is writing as a favor to wealthy benefactor. It’s not the station in life of the writer that impresses me but how well the writer knows the offender that is important.
*Ed. Note: Lest anyone be offended by the language, this is what real judges face in the real world. It’s presented here unsanitized because this is how it actually happens in real life. If you find this offensive, then don’t become a federal judge. It will make you very sad.