What Is a Character Reference (for Court)?

A character reference for court is a letter written about the accused by someone that he or she knows pretty well. The referee, or the person writing the letter, can be an asset to the case by helping mitigate, or reduce, the possible penalty of the accused person. For example, the Court often accepts character reference letters from people who can attest to the person’s lifestyle, medical condition, or family life. This centers around the idea that a morally good person is less deserving of punishment compared to a neutral or bad person who committed a similar offense. Preparing character references can also make the accused a prospect of rehabilitation due to the remorse and contrition that he or she feels over the act committed.

Who Should Provide the Character Reference?

Contrary to what many believe, character reference letters for court sentencing don’t have to come from someone who is held in high regard by society. You don’t need a priest, a politician, or an actor to receive a credible testimony that could solidify your case. The referee can be anyone who has known you for a long time or even had contact with you over the years. It can be a friend, an employer, or a colleague, depending on who can willingly carry out the task in your favor. What’s important is that the person can say something relevant about the accused to help avoid unnecessarily severe consequences. The letter may discuss what the accused is like as a person, one’s contributions to society, and how a harsh penalty could affect their loved ones. The message you convey should give the Court a good sense of the kind of person they are.

The Importance of a Character Reference (for Court)

Among the number of prisoners wrongfully convicted, a report by the Human Rights Defense Center claims that 47% of black prisoners make up the higher percentage of exonerations while white prisoners only account for 39% of the total. The raw numbers are a clear indication of racial bias that is very much existent in today’s society. Some factors that may have played a part in the prisoner’s conviction are the lack of evidence presented in court and a poor reference of character. It may sound silly, but a person of “good behavior” has a better chance of receiving a fair sentence compared to someone with a bad record.

While a character reference may not make a significant impact on the penalty, it can often persuade Court officials to lighten the punishment imposed on the defendant. That’s because providing clear evidence of good character may support a more lenient sentence and possibly reduce the seriousness of the offense. Those who bear innocence and those who are guilty of a nonviolent crime have a better chance of reducing their sentence with a good character reference. This shows that the subject is a respected and admired member of the community and that the offense is seen as out of character by others. This could mean the difference between a sentence of full-time custody and one that is non-custodial.

How to Write a Character Reference (for Court)

Bringing to the Court’s attention the details of the defendant’s good character can often be useful in deciding the appropriate penalty for the crime committed. If someone you know is being sentenced in court and they ask you to write a character reference to help clear their name, would you know what to do?

It might seem intimidating at first, especially if you’ve never experienced writing one in the past. Knowing where to start will be your biggest challenge as a beginner. To help you out, here are a few points to remember when writing a character reference letter for court:

Step 1: Include the Date of Writing and Your Contact Details

The judge or magistrate handling the case may want to verify the authenticity of your reference by letting a prosecutor or clerk call to check on you. You might have a brief conversation with the caller regarding the contents of the letter and whether or not you are aware of its existence. For the convenience of the caller, it’s best to include a contact number that you are actively using at the moment to make it easy for them to get in touch.

Step 2: Say Something about Yourself

The Court will appreciate it if you could provide some information about yourself for identification. It can be about the company you work for, your role in the company, and any volunteer or committee positions you may have in your community. You don’t have to provide a detailed overview of your accomplishments if they play no significance in the letter’s intentions. Instead, including information that proves that you’re a law-abiding citizen can help add to the credibility of your character reference.

Step 3: Explain Your Connection to the Defendant

Is there a family relation to the defendant? How long have you known the person? What role do you play in his or her life? The Court would want to know if the contact you had with the defendant is sufficient enough for you to provide a personal account of their character. It’s important, to be honest with your statements and to provide a quick run-through of your relationship over the period you have known each other.

Step 4: Describe the Defendant’s Character

No matter how close you are with the accused, there’s no denying the mistake in their actions especially when there are pieces of evidence to support. Rather than stirring an argument, recognize the offense and mention only what you know to be true from what the person before the Court has told you directly. But since this letter is also meant to side with the defendant, what you want the Court to know about the person’s character must then follow. If you know the defendant is innocent, provide information that will lead one to believe that the accused could not have committed the crime. And if the defendant pleads guilty, simply inform the Court that the defendant is sorry for the damages done and understands that the consequences that he or she may face.

Step 5: Provide Your Knowledge of What Is Going On in the Person’s Life

Although it may not apply to some circumstances, it may help to let the Court know about any unfortunate events in the defendant’s life that caused him or her to commit the crime. People guilty of traffic violations are sometimes caught breaking the law due to an emergency or accident that led to the violation. The point is to give the Court insight as to what the defendant’s true character is despite the case filed against them.

The Dos and Don’ts of a Character Reference (for Court)

Courts see character references as something that could help them make a fair judgment in determining one’s sentence. This will help the magistrate or judge decide what penalty should the accused face. For that reason, creating a reference letter that is meaningful to the case is essential for everyone involved in the matter. While there are no real ingredients to writing an effective character reference, your honesty, sincerity, and openness can make all the difference in the defendant’s circumstance.


1. Do speak with the defense attorney before writing your letter. 

Writing a formal letter for a legal proceeding can put the writer under a lot of pressure. You don’t want to say something that could worsen one’s case and place them at a disadvantage. It would be helpful if you speak with the defendant’s attorney beforehand to get a better idea of what you can say and what you should avoid saying in the letter. As a legal expert, the attorney may guide you with your content as you try to translate your thoughts into words. Seeking legal counsel is sure to help generate a favorable outcome for the accused.

2. Do take the time to introduce yourself. 

Start by introducing yourself to the reader. Your occupation and any qualifications you take pride in may be emphasized. This should be followed by an outline of the relationship you have with the subject of the legal proceedings. You can provide a sample brief summary of how you know the person, how long you have known each other, and how often the both of you are in contact. You can also note whether you’re a family member, co-worker, or friend of the individual. The longer you’ve been connected to each other, the more weight is added on your reference by the Court.

3. Do keep it direct and to the point. 

No one has the time to read through a lengthy and overly detailed letter. The time allocated for the court to read your letter is fairly limited, so be considerate enough of this fact by keeping the letter as brief and concise as possible. Using shorter sentences and simple language can also prevent ambiguity by making your message easier to grasp. Be sure to cut out words or phrases that don’t play a significant role in what you are trying to communicate. Anything that is considered unnecessary to your message must be excluded to prevent readers from drifting away from the context of what you are trying to convey. It’s also best to keep your points specific and relevant to the matter in question.

4. Do acknowledge the charges brought against the accused. 

Show that you recognize the offense that the person has been charged with. If you’re well aware of the case and have spoken with the accused since its occurrence, it would help if you state how the accused feels about the whole ordeal, including any feelings of remorse over the act committed. People who take responsibility for their actions are more than willing to make a change within themselves. So if the subject has been attending counseling sessions or has sought rehabilitation and treatment from a local center, then it is worth noting in the letter.

5. Do offer your honest opinion of the person’s general character. 

Portray the accused person in a way that limits your opinion to positive affirmations. If you think it is out of character for the accused to commit the offense out of human nature, explain your reason for having this belief. You’d want to avoid saying anything you know is not true in an attempt to paint the person who committed the offense in a good light. Lying is an offense in itself, and the last thing you’d want to do is to provide information that could hurt a person’s chances of getting a lighter sentence.


1. Don’t try to argue against the charges on behalf of the accused. 

You’re in no place to start an argument against what’s already on the table. While you may convince the Court to at least reduce the weight of the penalty against the defendant, avoid making a direct reference to the charges filed. Your aim with the letter is not to prove one’s innocence, but to let the Court know that the defendant does not deserve a harsh sentence. Instead, it’s best to acknowledge the fact that the accused made a mistake that should be addressed under lawful terms.

2. Don’t use informal or disrespectful tone. 

If you want your voice to be heard, understand that there is so much value when you learn to speak in a civilized manner. Be mindful of who your audience is and how your letter may affect the defendant’s case. When writing a letter for a legal purpose, you must maintain a professional tone all throughout your writing. This will serve as an advantage as it adds to your credibility as the referee. Also, avoid using slang or swear words that may sound offensive to the person reading it. Calling out the people involved in the case, such as the prosecution or the police, is another thing you’d want to avoid doing so as not to shed a negative light on your intentions.

3. Don’t mislead your readers. 

If you know the accused well enough to write the letter, then you should also know better than to lie about the person’s history. Claiming that the defendant has a clean record despite your knowledge of his or her criminal background may put you in hot water with Court officials. Your attempt to illustrate the accused in a positive light will eventually backfire if you think that lying would be an easy way out. If the Court finds out that you’ve been lying all along, they may consider the reference to be unreliable and your only chance to make a difference in the case could all go to waste. This is an opportunity you don’t want to lose, so be sure to maintain your honesty all throughout the letter.

4. Don’t include any information you aren’t certain about.

When you attest to a person’s character, then it means you’re sure about what you’re saying based on a personal encounter with the subject. This is one of the reasons why acquaintances of the accused are prohibited from constructing something as vital as a character reference letter. No matter how convincing you make it sound, it won’t be long until the Court realizes some discrepancies between your account and someone else’s. If you can’t produce a solid account that’s favorable to the defendant’s case, you might as well decline the request to write the letter so as not to jeopardize the opportunity.

5. Don’t ignore the importance of proper formatting. 

Using a business format to write a formal letter is something you should already know by now. Lay out the contents of the letter in an appropriate structure to ensure a logical flow of information. Proper spacing must be observed as well. Remember to address the recipient of the letter and to sign the document before submitting it for review. The best approach is to make the letter brief and concise for the reader’s convenience.

If someone you know is being sentenced for a crime they did or didn’t commit, it’s always a wise idea to have some supporting material to prove that they are a person of good character. Something as simple as a character reference letter can be a powerful aspect of mitigation. When written properly, a character reference letter may effectively showcase who they are to help reduce the severity of a penalty.