Client Guide to Writing Letter to the Judge for Federal Sentencing

*This guide is for the person being sentenced and not a friend or family member writing a character or support letter.

Persuading the Judge

Establish Credibility

Ethos is linked with morality and ethics. To employ ethos in your letter you want to present yourself as humble and trustworthy. This can be difficult because you have been convicted of crime. The judge knows you are in a desperate situation and most people would say or write anything to avoid prison time. You want the judge to understand that you are credible and your letter is not just your best attempt at writing what you think the judge wants to hear. To achieve this, you need to take complete ownership of your charge (Accept Responsibility). Tell the judge how you ended up in this situation by walking through your decisions that led you to this point. Explain how this is different from other times you have been in trouble with the law. Do not just say, “This time is different.” Be specific, with concrete examples, of how you and your life is different now. Avoid making any excuse for your decision to commit the offense. This part is about who you are now.

Appeal to Reason

Logos is the use of logic, reasoning, and rationality to convince the judge that a lower sentence makes sense in your case. This is where you want to explain to the judge what you have experienced has had an impact and your specific plan for avoiding criminal conduct in the future. Start with explaining to the judge any efforts you have made for rehabilitation since you were arrested. This could be substance abuse counseling, mental health treatment, or reading you have done. Then talk about your plans for reform during your sentence and how you expect these efforts will prepare you to reenter society as a law abiding and productive member. Include specifics about any programs or treatment you hope to take part in while in custody or while under supervision. If faith is genuinely a part of your rehabilitation plan, tell the judge what you have learned and how you intend to keep learning and developing in your faith. It is not a bad idea to number a list of the top five activities you will engage in to make change. This part is about your short-term plans to make changes.

Humanize Your Future

Pathos invokes and appeals to the emotions of the judge. Pleading or begging is not effective. You want to paint a picture of life after being released. You want the judge to view you as a person (i.e. father, son, brother, friend, employee) rather than just an offender. Be specific about your reentry plan. Tell the judge: where and with whom you want to live; what your realistic employment goals are (short-term and long-term); what you are going to do to avoid criminal thinking errors (i.e. go to AA/NA, continue mental health treatment, engage in a convict mentorship program); and what role you will take in your family. Be realistic and focus on specifics about what your day-to-day life will include. This is the part about your future and how that future will not include criminal activity.

What to Avoid


No Excuses: Avoid making excuses for your decisions. You are trying to convince the judge you have and will continue to change. The judge views your criminal behavior as a problem. The judge views his role is to solve that problem. The first step to solving a problem is defining the problem. If you do not show the judge that you agree on the problem to solve, then your proposed solutions will not carry much weight. Do not use the word “Mistake.”




No Promises: In practically every case the judge hears people swearing they will never be in trouble again. Do not waste everyone’s time professing your reformation. Every day the judge sees these hollow promises broken. Instead, spend your few words on explaining your motivation for change and your concrete plan to achieve change.




No Criminal Justice Reform: Consider your audience. It is not easy to become a federal judge. The judge has made it his or her life to preside over criminal cases. The judge must believe the system is worth participating in and that the judge is making a difference. Do not insult the judge by bemoaning the shortfalls of the criminal justice system. You want to express optimism that your active engagement in what the system has to offer will help you along the way to change.

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