Letters of Reference

Writing Effective Letters of Reference in Criminal Matters

Letters of reference are most often used in these phases of the criminal justice process: dismissal of charges, reduction of bail, sentencing, and expungement.

After a person has been arrested by the police, the district attorney's office decides whether to actually file criminal charges. In some cases, letters of reference from family, friends, co-workers, teachers, and others can help to get charges reduced or even dismissed. In other instances, letters are helpful in getting bail reduced or eliminated altogether.

If a defendant has been convicted and is facing sentencing, reference letters may be submitted to the judge to argue for leniency in sentencing.

Reference letters are also often valuable when someone is seeking expungement of his/her criminal record. California law provides the opportunity for expungement when a person convicted of a crime has fulfilled all the terms of sentencing, including completion of probation and payment of fines. (Click here to read a complete explanation of the expungement process.)

What to Include in Reference Letters

An effective letter of reference should have this format:
  • Typed
  • Dated
  • Directed to the judge handling the case, if known; directed to "The Superior Court of (insert name) County" if the judge's name is not known
  • Written in clear, concise, grammatically correct language
  • Signed at the bottom over the author's typed name
All types of reference letters should include this information:
  • The author's name and address
  • The author's relationship to the defendant, including how long the author has known the defendant
  • The author's age and occupation
A reference letter for dismissal of charges should address these issues:
  • Specific ways that the defendant has matured and changed for the better since being charged
  • Examples of the defendant's good character and contributions to the community
A reference letter for reduction of bail should address these issues:
  • Examples of the defendant's good character and contributions to the community
  • Evidence that the alleged violation is inconsistent with the defendant's good behavior in the past
A reference letter for sentencing should address these issues:
  • Specific observations of the remorse felt by the defendant because of the crime
  • Examples of positive aspects of the defendant's character and contributions to the community
A reference letter for expungement should address these issues:
  • Specific ways that the defendant has matured and changed for the better since being convicted and completing the terms of sentencing
  • Examples of the defendant's good character and contributions to the community

The Importance of Authenticity

Finally, reference letters should always be written by the person who puts his/her signature at the bottom of the page. Letters of reference should never be copied off of the web or drafted by the defendant. Authenticity is crucial.

To see a sample letter of reference for an expungement, click on the link below.