How to Prepare For Sentencing
Few defendants know or understand how to prepare for sentencing. That’s understandable. First-time offenders have especially hard times preparing for sentencing.
People see others that break the law as criminals. Yet when authorities target them, defendants see things differently. Despite their arrest and conviction, defendants cannot identify with the way that others in the system will perceive them. In their eyes, they are parents. They are sons and daughters. They are Americans who do good things in the community.
Defendants struggle to comprehend how a conviction will change their lives. They do not know all the ways that others will judge them.
In 1987, I was a first-time offender. I didn’t know how to prepare for sentencing. My lack of preparation led my judge to slam me. He sentenced me to 45 years. If I understood the system then as I understand it now, I would have made better decisions.
For many stakeholders, the criminal charge defines a person. Officers, investigators, and prosecutors will not consider past good deeds. They do not concern themselves with future potential of the defendant. The charge and conviction influence pre-trial service officers and probation officers. Judges who sit on the bench may have implicit bias against the defendant.
We must live in the world as it exists rather than as we would like it to be. Expect stakeholders in criminal justice to have biases. Social science research offers many articles showing the irrationality of human beings.
I teach people how to prepare for sentencing with these facts in mind.
To prepare for sentencing, defendants should consider influences that lead people to make decisions. Prosecutors want to convict the defendant. How far will they go to get that conviction, or a lengthy sentence? If they’ve made a decision to charge a defendant, prosecutors want to win. They define wins with long sentences. Similarly, defense attorneys want to win. Yet roughly 90 percent of people charged in a federal case face a sentencing hearing. After a conviction, defense attorneys may define success with the lowest possible sentence.
The judge knows that a prosecutor wants a stiff sentence. The judge knows that a defense attorney wants a low sentence. What role does the defendant have to influence the best outcome?
Defendants that prepare can influence a judge’s decision at sentencing. They cannot change the past. But they can influence the journey ahead if they prepare for sentencing. They must work to build a persuasive case. How can they show why they’re worthy of mercy?
All defendants want a lower sentence. They all will miss their family. Many say they’re sorry for what they’ve done. But saying “I’m sorry” isn’t going to influence the sentence length. To prepare for sentencing, defendants must take action. They must tell the backstory of how they have fallen into this predicament.
To prepare for sentencing, defendants should think about how they can influence the judge in a positive way. They cannot rely upon a defense attorney to do the heavy lifting. Instead, they must work to persuade the judge. Build a case to show why the criminal charge is an aberration. If the conduct was not an aberration, then show influences that led to the criminal behavior. Defendants take meaningful steps toward a lower sentence when they humanize their actions.
Actionable Steps to Prepare for Sentencing:
Defendants may overcome implicit biases by writing first-person sentencing narratives. They should explain their family backgrounds to show the factors that influenced their values. They should express empathy with the victims, explaining how their actions contributed to loss and hurt others. In their narratives, defendants should introspect. They should show what they’ve learned by reflecting on all of the influences that led them into criminal misconduct. Then defendants should describe what they’re doing to make things right. Defendants should articulate a plan. Show the judge how and why they’re preparing for a law-abiding, contributing life. Their sentencing narrative succeeds if they convince the judge that they will never become a criminal defendant again. This strategy shows remorse. It may persuade the judge to impose a lower sentence.
I’m a member of an advisory council with the Robina Institute. That role lets me ask judges questions. The Honorable Judge Jack Lu told me defendants could influence his decision at sentencing. He said that defendants should do more than say that they’re sorry. Few defendants, he said, understand how to accomplish this task without guidance. I’ve written a guide to to prepare for prosecution, sentencing, and prison.
Judge Pamela Alexander also confirmed that defendants can influence the sentencing decision. If judges don’t understand the defendant, they don’t know which sanction is best. What will go furthest toward protecting community safety? Defendants should prepare for sentencing by helping judges know their stories.
U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett offered a lot of insight when it came to sentencing. I interviewed him on video. Defendants who reflect on the crime and help him understand their story influence his sentencing decisions. Defense attorneys, he said, do not always prepare their clients for sentencing. Few defendants know how to prepare for sentencing.
Prepare for Sentencing with the Presentence Investigation Report
It isn’t easy to prepare for sentencing. Defendants can start by preparing for the Presentence Investigation Report. They must make every effort to position themselves for a better outcome through each step of the journey. Most defendants cannot afford to hire an expert to help them prepare for sentencing. Access this booklet I wrote and you’ll see case studies. Learn how I helped others prepare for sentencing and use that same strategy to prepare yourself. You may also find information in books I wrote about the prison experience.