Why are references important?
Whatever you are being sentenced for, references are an extremely important part of a plea of guilty in Court. They are generally tendered without question, and almost always effect the severity of any applicable penalty, often to a marked degree. References present Accused persons with a golden opportunity to impress upon the court what a marvelous, hardworking, family and community orientated person you are.
There are a few basic rules in obtaining references:
- The references must be written specifically for the court appearance in which they will be tendered. Job, school or outdated and old references are totally useless and will be given little to weight.
- The idea is to not to obtain as many as you possibly can, but rather to focus on quality over quantity. As a general rule, for less serious crime, 3 references is a good number to aim for. For serious crime, the more quality references obtained, the better.
- Obtain references from different types of people speaking to your character. Reliable sources of references are:
- Family, in particular parents and spouses;
- Charitable and sporting organisations to which you are a contributing member;
- Treating doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors;
- People held in high esteem in the community e.g. your local political member, legal practitioners and public figures.
What should a reference look like?
References should typed and whenever possible on letterhead. References must be signed and dated.
Do not write “to whom it may concern”. The reference should be addressed as follows:
The Presiding Magistrate/Judge
(Parramatta) Local (or District) Court
Dear Magistrate (or Judge)
Re: Joe Bloggs – Character Reference
The ‘referee’ should say something about him/herself and include any positions or titles held. For example:
I am a General Practitioner at Parramatta Medical Centre. I am also a board member of the Blacktown Cricket Club.
Referees should outline how they know you and how long they have known the person for.
I have known Joe Blog’s for 20 years since we first met as volunteers of the Rural Fire Service. Since that time we have become close friends and our families each summer go away to Hawks Nest together and share a holiday house.
All references should state that they know why the person is before the Court. For example:
I am aware that Joe Blog’s has pleaded guilty to the offences of common assault, damaging property and intimidation.
All references should state background information as to whether the person has previously been sentenced by a criminal court.
I know that this is not the first time Joe Blog’s has been before a court and that he in fact has thrice previously been convicted of drink driving. However, at the times of those offences, I did not perceive his drinking problem to have been addressed. Since completing residential rehabilitation, he is a different person and indeed I have not known him to be sober for this long since I first met him.
The references should state that the person communicated to the referee that he or she is remorseful for their conduct and has demonstrated insight into their behaviour. For example:
I have seen how Joe Blog’s sincerely regrets having committed the offence. When he approached me and told me about what he did, Joe was in tears. He was devastated that his drunken behaviour in destroying the company’s property had caused them such a significant financial loss. Joe told me that he recognised that he had to be held account for his actions and asked if I would help organise a personal loan so the company could be compensated immediately.
What else can be included in a reference?
The best references are written from the heart. It is tempting to write off a template but doing so creates a risk that the reference will sound contrived and read exactly like every other letter tendered in court that day. Whilst references from employers sound professional, loved ones should not be afraid to spill their hearts. Below are some example of how particular aspects of a person’s character may be conveyed in a reference.
Mental health, drug addiction and alcohol abuse
Mental health, drug addiction and alcohol abuse are matters relevant to the sentencing exercise. What factors to the referee think contributed to the offending? Did the referee observe the person to be depressed, or to have experienced trauma, or to have self-medicated with drugs and alcohol? For example:
Joe Blog’s has battled with drugs since his early adolescent. His parents being marijuana smokers himself made no efforts to curtail his drug use and I know for a fact that by 16 years of age he was smoking daily not only with his parents’ consent but also sharing marijuana with them. Whilst their drug use was limited to cannabis, tragically, for Joe, it provided a gateway to Ice. The drug, he was under the influence of, when he committed this offence.
If the referee is an employer, the character reference should proves to the court that the person is a contributing to society. The referee must write what the job is and how long has the person been employed? What makes them a good employee and why are they indispensable? For example:
Since commencing employment in 2010, Joe Blog’s contribution to the company as a sales executive has been recognised by his colleagues and customers alike. His understanding of the business and local knowledge, having grown up in the community where the business is located, is irreplaceable. He is a mentor to our younger staff members, leading by example, in that he is first to arrive and last to leave.
An employer should state whether he or she can continue employing the person should the court record a conviction or impose a gaol sentence. If applicable, state if the person will lose their job because of other penalties (ex. licence disqualification), do not use vague or ambiguous language such as “the business may review Joe’s Blog’s position”. Be direct, for example:
Our company policies will not allow Joe Blog’s to continue his employment with us if he receives a conviction for a criminal charge and his contract will be terminated immediately. I have enclosed a copy of Joe’s contract with his permission to show the condition that the company would have no discretion but to rely on, despite his outstanding contributions, if he receives a criminal record.
If the referee is a family member, the referee will most likely have a personal and intimate perspective of the person. The hardest criminal can be the most loving father. Magistrates and judges are parents, husbands and wives. The way one treats their family is often a means of gaining an affinity with the court. For example:
As Joe Blog’s mother, I saw first hand how hard it was for him to lose his father at the start of his teenage years. In many ways, his age at the time meant he was forced to forgo his own childhood to look after his younger siblings and in helping them I feel he was never able to process his own grief.
A person’s demonstrated rehabilitation since an offence can be the difference between escaping a criminal or a conviction and freedom or gaol. If a person has received treatment for any criminogenic factors contributing to their offending, it is paramount that those efforts are emphasised by the referee. These efforts can include attending a psychologist, psychiatrist, counsellor, detox or rehabilitation. For Example:
Seeing a psychologist has changed every aspect of Joe Blog’s life. He has stopped drinking and can communicate with people more clearly. That has given him the confidence to find a job and reconcile with his children who he hasn’t spoken to for years. It’s the first time I have seen him happy and positive since he was seriously injured in the workplace accident in 2014.
Referees from the community sector will be given weight if you are a participant in charity work or sporting clubs. They will be given less weight if the referee knows the person but the person themselves has no connection to the community organization. The closer your community ties, the better. For example:
Joe Blog’s is a pillar of the local community, having been the President of the White Cross, Parramatta branch, for the past decade. In that time, Joe has personally raised hundreds of thousands of dollars by petitioning the local community to support his efforts to combat domestic violence. His work was directly responsible for the opening of the local women’s refuge, which I would assume the court is familiar with. He is the last person whom I would imagine to ever be before the court for an offence
If you are a friend of the accused, you can write a character reference that shows a good familiarity with the person. How long have you known the accused? How is the person like when outside home and when interacting with people in the community? What does he or she that goes above and beyond what people would normally do?
I have known Joe Blog’s since high school and more than two later, our children are at Blacktown Public School together in Kindergarten and year 2 respectively. and ago. Since my wife died tragically of cancer, I have been a single parent performing shift work to put food on the table to feed my children. Joe pick the children up after school and carries them in his arms as they asleep to my car at 10pm each school night, having fed them and helped them with his homework. He is like a second father to them and a brother to me. I don’t know how we would have overcome the tragedy that became us if not for him.
Hardship is a matter that a court may consider. Common forms of hardship include financial and family matters. For example:
The domestic violence offence that Joe Blog’s committed has meant he has had to restart his life from scratch in his mid-thirties, although his remorse and character has meant not once have I heard him complain. Nonetheless, he has lost his security licence and is unemployed looking to find a new field of work. He hasn’t seen his kids in months and is heading to the family court. He is back living with his parents. I am extremely concerned that a conviction will make it all but impossible for him to find new work when he is unskilled in all but security and unable to return to that industry.
Traffic offences and references
If the offence is one that carries a loss of licence, the referees should state your needs for a licence. Below are some reasons a court may invoke for not recording, or reducing, a disqualification period.
Loss of employment is a classic reason for a court not disqualifying a person. If a person will lose their job if they lose their licence then the referee should put forward that assertion with absolute certainty. The court will see straight through waffle such as “his position may be reviewed”. For example:
A licence disqualification will prevent Joe Blog’s from fulfilling his duties and hence, if this occurs, he will be asked to temporarily leave his post until the disqualification lapses or if the disqualification is for more than 3 months, his employment will be terminated as per clause 8.2 of his contract enclosed herein. There is no discretion in this situation. He is a sales representative and our clients cannot be serviced by public transport.
Lack of public transport
No viable alternative transport is a matter the court may consider when deciding whether to impose a disqualification. This mainly applies to people in the country, but may apply if you are a shift worker, reside or work in an area not serviced by public transport, or to females who work late. For example:
Joe Blog’s works at Marayong Chickens in an industrial area where there is no public transport. He wakes up at 3am, leaves at 4am, and starts his shift at 5am. We have explored all options and, as he is the only licenced driver in our family, he has no way to get to work if he loses his licence. We have a mortgage and two school age children. Without a licence, he cannot get to work. Worse still, we’d have no way to get to the Richmond shops, a 20 minute drive from where we live on acreage.
Family reasons such as care for a child or elderly parents, sickness of yourself or another who relies upon your ability to drive, are matters a court may consider. For example:
Joe Blogs resigned from his job to look after our sick son as he is the only licenced driver in our family who could take him to his daily medical appointments. When he stopped working, I started a lower paying job. Even though it meant less money, it was the only way we could ensure our son received the treatment he needed. Joe is with our son 24 hours a day in case his conditions worsens and he needs to be taken to hospital. We simply cannot look after our son without a car.
Never do any of these things in references:
- Provide false or misleading information in the character reference.
- Suggest to the Judge or Magistrate what penalty to impose.
- Criticise the law, police, prosecutor, or the victim.
- Antagonise the Judge or Magistrate to whom the reference is addressed.
- References should not be identical.
Letters of apology – What do I write?
Letters of apology should follow the same format as references in terms of presentation and cover the same topics but for the fact that the person being sentenced is talking about themselves. These letters should include:
- An apology for your conduct;
- A summary of how you perceive yourself as a person e.g. what you do and who you consider yourself to be.
- A statement of the effect a conviction or the consequences that flow from a conviction would have on your life.
- Evidence of remorse and any steps taken to change behaviour e.g. attendance at counselling, drug tests, psychological appointments, Traffic Offenders Program;
- An explanation as to the circumstances of your offending. However, do not make excuses for criminal conduct, simply state what happened.
- Show your understanding of the seriousness of the offence e.g. impact on the community, yourself and others in your life.