If you have been charged with an offence and are intending to plead guilty, this article explains how to best prepare for your sentence proceedings in order to enhance your prospects of a favourable outcome. Depending on the nature of the offence that you have been charged with, your criminal and traffic history and the time at which you enter your plea of guilty, following these steps might mean the difference between having an entry recorded in your criminal history or even spending time in jail (or not).
Step 1 – retain a good lawyer.
Before you skip this step and go straight to the ‘how to’, consider that a lawyer who specialises in criminal law (which, in modern practice, includes traffic offences and breaches of domestic violence orders) assists clients to prepare for sentence on a daily basis. We can take a lot of the stress and anxiety out of preparing for sentence by, for example, providing specific guidance on how to write a character reference, connecting you with testing, therapeutic or other courses to undertake before sentencing and arranging payment of compensation or restitution through the Prosecution service. Without a lawyer, once the preparation is done you will still need to appear in court and actually present your own case – you’ll need to draw proper attention to all of the preparation you have done and the features in your favour (both legally and circumstantially) and argue against a professional prosecutor about what the proper penalty is. If it’s your first time appearing in court, or arguing against a professional, the conduct of your own plea might be a daunting, if not downright traumatic, experience.
With that out of the way, whether you do or don’t retain a lawyer to act for you, the following steps will help you prepare for sentence. If you do hire a lawyer, you should ask them exactly what they want you to do in preparation for your sentence proceedings as well (and if you hire me, you now know what I’m going to suggest you do).
As trite as it might sound, the best first step in preparing for most sentence proceedings is to apologise for your offending conduct. If there is an identifiable ‘victim’ (as in the case of an assault, for example) it is a good idea to write them a letter apologising for your conduct. In cases where the ‘victim’ is the community at large (as in the case of a drink driving offence or tax fraud) the apology should take the form of a letter to the court, addressed to the presiding Magistrate or Judge. There is, obviously, some sensitivity that needs to be exercised when writing (and sending) letters of apology (for example any apology to a complainant/victim should be made via the prosecution service handling the case) and you should seek advice about how to best give an apology in your specific situation.
Pay compensation or restitution
In addition to an apology, if there is an identifiable victim of your offence it is often advisable to pay them a sum of money as compensation or restitution (the difference being that restitution is a fixed amount payable to make up for specific damage, for example the cost of a broken window or a dental bill, whereas compensation is a more general payment as an apology). Compensation or restitution should be paid via the prosecution service, and written confirmation of the payment having been made or accepted (or declined, as sometimes happens) should be asked for.
In cases where there is a monetary loss, for example in fraud offences, it is often of immense benefit if you can repay some, or all, of the amount which was taken before you are sentenced. It is normally very difficult to do this (particularly if the fraud is large), so it is not done very often, and if you can manage it you will set yourself apart from most other people in your same situation.
Prepare character references
If you have not been in trouble before, or if you only have a limited (or old) criminal history, you should prepare two or three character references which are, in essence, letters from people who know you, know of your charges and can attest to your otherwise good character. A character reference allows you, or your lawyer, to build a picture of you for the sentencing court which is additional, and different, to the image that will be portrayed by the prosecution.
There is no legislated format for a character reference but there are some very important things that they should, and should not, say. Any professional criminal lawyer should be able to provide you with a guide or template for writing a character reference. If you do use a template (especially one you find online) it is essential that you make sure it is properly addressed and that all referees give their own individual reference. Multiple references addressed to the wrong court and which all say, word for word, the same thing do more harm than good.
Undertake courses or therapy
When the court is passing sentence on you one of the things it will be thinking about is what orders it can, or should, make to assist you to avoid offending again in the future. In many cases it can be helpful for a defendant if they can come to court armed with evidence of having already enrolled on, or undertaken, courses relevant to this issue. For example, if you are charged with assaulting your domestic partner (a ‘DV assault’) it will be of great benefit to you on sentence if you undertake an anger management and conflict resolution course before being sentenced. If alcohol or another drug was a factor in your offence, completing an education or rehabilitation course to manage your relationship with the problematic substance will also assist you.
Even without doing a formal course, it can often be of benefit for a defendant to engage with a therapist or counsellor to discuss issues relevant to their offending.
It is important, if you do a course or attend therapy/counselling, that you obtain written evidence of this for use in court. Many formal courses will give a certificate of completion, and sometimes even a report, and most counsellors (and certainly all that I work with) will prepare a specific letter for the sentencing court setting out the positive steps you have taken with them in your sessions.
Obtain a pre-sentence report
For more serious charges there can be a lot of value in having a professional pre-sentence psychological, or even psychiatric, report prepared. A pre-sentence report will inform the court about a range of relevant issues which will influence the way you are sentenced (the most relevant issues, for example mental illness, personality disorders, history of abuse or drug addiction will be different for each individual). Reports can often be costly, so I do not suggest that they are essential in every case (for less serious offences they are, in my view, an unnecessary expense) but they contribute incalculable value when prepared in relation to serious matters. It is important that a pre-sentence report is prepared by a qualified professional, meaning a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist who is experienced in writing reports for courts. Any professional criminal lawyer will be able to direct you toward an appropriately qualified and experienced professional if you need a pre-sentence report prepared.
In closing I shall return to my first point; preparing for sentence proceedings in relation to a criminal charge is important. Good preparation combined with competent advocacy, is a recipe for a ‘best case outcome’ at court. If you can, I strongly advise you to have a lawyer to help you prepare and to act for you on sentence but if you cannot do this, for whatever reason, I hope this guide can be of some use to you and I wish you the best of luck.
If you have any questions about this article, or if you would like to discuss your upcoming charge with me for free, use the form below to get in touch.