How Do You Write a Good Character Letter for Court?

Character letters help show judges and District Attorneys (DAs) that you are more than your latest mistake. They can be vital tools in navigating your criminal case.

A character letter can help you:

  • Receive a more lenient sentence. 
  • Convince a judge to offer deferred adjudication, which gives you a chance to avoid a conviction if you meet certain conditions. If you satisfy the required conditions, you will not have a conviction.
  • Have your charges reduced.
  • Convince a judge or DA to dismiss your charges.
  • In drug cases, a character letter can convince the DA or court to offer you treatment instead of jail.

Character letters are useful regardless of whether you have committed the crime you’ve been charged with.

What is a character letter for court?

A character letter is a letter of support from people who know you to help show judges and DAs the positive sides of you. Any of the following individuals may write a character statement letter:

• Family members, including your minor children
• Friends
• Coworkers
• Acquaintances
• Employers
• Teachers
• Religious leaders
• Witnesses
• Counselors
• Therapists
• Coaches
• Community leaders
• Spouses, partners, or significant others

When you ask people in your life to write a character letter for you, ask them to focus on the following points:

• Your positive characteristics
• Past or present volunteer work
• Your role in your community or family
• Any positive changes they’ve seen you make in your life
• Other evidence of your good moral character

Ask them to avoid discussing the specific facts of your criminal case. A potential letter writer can hurt your case if they attempt to discuss the case itself. In addition, a letter may be used at many different stages in the case if it doesn’t mention specifics about the case. 

Why are character letters important?

Character letters can help your case in the following ways.

1. Character letters show the judge and DA that you have an emotional and/or financial support system in place to help you through your current challenges.
2. Character letters can help remind the judge and DA that you are a human being and not just the mistake you made.
3. Character letters can show the judge and DA that you are a productive person in society by explaining you are employed, going to school, or volunteering in some fashion.
4. Character letters can help show you’ve made positive changes since the arrest, reducing the need to rehabilitate you in punitive ways.
5. Character letters can be especially important in drug cases. The character letters can show a judge that an individual needs a treatment program and they have a good support system in place, which is extremely helpful during the recovery process for people with addiction.

What is the goal of writing a character letter?

The goal of writing a character letter is to humanize a defendant in the eyes of judges and prosecutors. 

Without character letters, it’s all too easy for judges and prosecutors to see you only as a criminal who needs to be put away. Police reports can paint individuals in the worst possible light. Character letters show who the individual really is outside of the charged incident.

Character letters can also help your defense lawyer achieve different goals at different stages of the case. 

• During the pre-charging phase of the case, the goal of a character letter is to avoid criminal charges altogether.
• During the plea bargaining and negotiation phase of the case, the goal is to get a favorable plea bargain or a dismissal of the charges.
• After the case has been resolved through a plea agreement or a conviction, the goal is to reduce the sentence imposed by the judge. 

At all three of these stages, character letters help to paint a picture of you as a three-dimensional person who is more than the sum of your mistakes or alleged mistakes.

How many character letters do I need?

You may submit as many character letters as you want. We’ve had defendants submit one character letter. We’ve had defendants submit as many as 18+.

Every case is different. 

Ultimately, you want each character letter to discuss a unique aspect of you as an individual. One letter might help demonstrate that you are a loving, hardworking parent. Another might help to demonstrate that you’re involved in church activities and are a beloved member of the community. A third might help the court see you as a diligent student or worker.

You should pursue as many letters as you can get. Your lawyer will go through the letters and decide which ones to submit. Some letters provide less value than others. Some do a better job of showing who you are as a person. 

Your job is to give your attorney as many resources to work with as possible. Your attorney’s job will be to determine which of those resources might be most helpful to your case.

Do character letter writers need to know the purpose of the character letter?

No, it’s not required that the letter writer knows the purpose. Many defendants don’t want any more family or community members than absolutely necessary to know they’re in trouble with the law. Fortunately, it’s not necessary to tell anyone why you are asking them for a character letter. There are many reasons that people need character letters:  employment applications, college applications, etc.  You may use these same letters for many purposes.

Nevertheless, if you can bring yourself to be honest with the people in your life, you can sometimes get better results. When a letter writer understands the purpose of the letter, they may address specific character traits that may be in question. 

When the writer doesn’t know what’s going on, the letter is often too basic and generic to be helpful.

For example, if you are facing shoplifting charges it may be useful for your friend to write about times when you’ve shown extreme honesty or integrity.

Who can write a character letter?

Almost anyone can write a character letter for you. 

Character letters from family members, friends, coworkers, witnesses, counselors, therapists, teachers, coaches, friends, family members, employers, community leaders, religious leaders, or anyone else who is currently involved in your life can be very effective in your case. 

Your spouse or significant other can write one too, even if your case is a domestic violence case and they are the alleged victim. Often, alleged victims will do that when they want you to get some kind of help rather than some kind of punishment. They also may write to express why they do not want to press charges.  When that’s the case, they can say so in their letter. 

Of course, the more prestigious the letter writer, the more effective the letter. A letter from an officer of the law or a judge is especially potent as these individuals are unlikely to write anything they don’t truly believe. 

Nevertheless, you shouldn’t underestimate the power of a letter written by a member of your family. While some defendants fear such letters are too biased to be believed, the truth is these letters can be some of the most important. First, letters from family members and friends help to provide evidence of your daily support system. Showing such a support system exists is one of the purposes of writing character letters in the first place. Second, family members and friends have had more history and deeper interactions with you, so they can be more detailed in their letters.

Even a child can write a character letter for you. We’ve had highly effective character letters written by a 7-year-old child.

How do you choose who to ask to write a character letter for you?

Ask yourself the following questions when deciding who to ask:

1. Am I comfortable asking this person to write this letter for me?
2. Does this person know me well enough to provide details and specifics about my positive qualities or service?
3. Do I have a good, active relationship with this person? You want to avoid asking anyone you’ve burned bridges with or anyone who currently has a strained relationship with you.
4. Is this person an upstanding individual in their own right? 
5. Will I still have a good relationship with this person after asking them to write this letter on my behalf?

You can ask almost anyone—it’s up to you—but we can offer some caveats:

1. It’s best to ask people you feel you can be honest with. If you don’t explain why you need the letter, you could get a generic, unhelpful letter.
2. You might need to provide details and directions on how a specific person’s input might be helpful to you. For example, your therapist can’t provide details of your therapy but can tell the court that you’ve been proactive about your recovery.

Don’t write letters yourself and get other people to sign them.

The DA and the judge tend to read these letters back to back. The more variety and personalization your letters contain, the better. 

Will my lawyer help me obtain character letters?

Most likely not. In most cases, you will have to put in the leg work and ask people. Obtaining character letters is one of the ways that you, as a defendant, can assist in your own defense. Only in very unique situations will your attorney assist you with gathering character letters for you.

When a defendant is in custody, they will need to ask a support person like a friend, parent, or sibling to get direction from the lawyer to go out and get the letters.

We also discourage our clients from saying, “My attorney said I need you to write this letter.” Instead, say something like: “A character letter could really help me resolve this case in a positive way. Will you help?”

Will the courts or the District Attorney contact the letter writer?

Not always, but this is a possibility. Every character letter should include the author’s phone number, and it is always possible that the DA or court will choose to contact those individuals.

The most common reason why a court or a lawyer would contact the author is to verify that the writer wrote the letter. They’ll say something like, “We received a letter. Did you write it and give it to the defendant or did you write it and provide it to the attorney?”

Both the defense lawyer and the DA might have cause to attempt to verify the letter.

The DA might also contact the letter writer if they want to clarify some details that were in the letter. This is why it’s so important to avoid mentioning case specifics. Writers who attempt to address case details might just give the DA more evidence or more cause to prosecute!

How Do You Format a Character Letter?

Authenticity is the most important trait a character letter can provide, so we want to avoid canned formats wherever possible. Handwritten letters can be as effective as typed letters. Personal letters can be as effective as business letters.

Nevertheless, there are a few items that should be in every letter:

• The date
• A name
• A signature
• A phone number

Since many individuals are likely to view the letter, it’s best to address the letter, “To Whom it May Concern.”

What should be included in a character letter?

We offer these general guidelines for what to include in a character letter. We never tell anyone exactly what to write:

1. Every word needs to be true. Do not exaggerate.
2. Include a description of how you know the person in question and how long you’ve known them.
3. Talk about any positive traits you’ve seen this person demonstrate, and include (true) anecdotes that demonstrate these qualities. 
4. If you know the specifics of the case, it can help to address the concerns behind those specifics in a general way. Don’t discuss the details of the case, but if you know it’s a child endangerment case, talk about the defendant’s past behaviors as a parent. If it’s a domestic violence case, you can talk about the defendant’s history as a non-violent or helpful person.
5. If the defendant helps you personally, include details of how they help you. Examples include making sure there’s food in the fridge, making sure you get your medications, taking you to doctor’s appointments, cleaning the house for you, or performing other services you can’t afford to get any other way.
6. Be as personal as possible. 
7. Be as positive as possible. 
8. Be as specific as possible. Specificity helps promote variety. A coworker might discuss the defendant’s willingness to jump on projects or go the extra mile at work, whereas a clergy member might discuss church attendance or volunteer work. 

What are some tips for writing a good character letter?

Use these tips to guide you as you draft a character letter:

1. Never address the specific facts of the defendant’s case.
2. Use “To Whom it May Concern” instead of “Dear” and a specific name. Different people will be reading this letter at different stages of the case.
3 Date your letter. Letters that look like they may have been produced several years ago won’t help.
4. Add your name and phone number for verification purposes.
5. Your letter should be concise and direct. Keep it under one page.
6. Never exaggerate, lie, or embellish the truth. Be honest. Don’t try to paint the defendant as a perfect person.
7. Look for ways to earn trust by explaining who you are and how you know the person. Did you ever live with them? How long have you known them? 
8. Think about your relationship with the person. 
9. Focus on positive qualities that the DA or court won’t be able to see in a police report. Try to describe the person as they are. If they’ve changed for the better since the incident or since their conviction, focus on those positive changes. 
10. Be respectful. Keep your tone professional. Avoid name-calling or complaining. This isn’t the place to share your opinions about the justice system, the DA, or the judge.

Give the letter to your loved one or your loved one’s attorney.

How long should a character letter be?

Keep your character letter under one page. Nobody who is reading the letter will have time to read more than that. 

Even a single paragraph can be effective if you make it personal, make it authentic, make it honest, and focus on specific character traits or positive qualities that the defendant offers.

What is the best way for a parent to write a character letter for a child?

When writing a character letter for a child, try to:

1. Be supportive but objective.
2. Tell the court who your child is.
3. Avoid the appearance that you are enabling your child. 
4. Offer specific stories in support of the point you are trying to make.

What is the best way for an educator to write a character letter for a student?

When writing a character letter for a student, try to:

1. Discuss behavior, in addition to academic performance or grades.
2. Provide specific examples. For example, if you want to highlight the student’s leadership qualities, discuss how they took on a school project or tutored other students in class without rewards.
3. Address any improvements you’ve seen or steps that you’ve seen the student take toward building a more positive future.

What is the best way for a coworker to write a character letter for a colleague or employee?

When writing a character letter for a coworker, try to:

1. Focus on how you work together as a member of the team.
2. Discuss how long you’ve worked together.
3. Discuss the subject’s work style and work ethic.
4. Provide specific examples. For example, if you want to highlight your colleague’s integrity, discuss a time when they could have done the wrong thing or taken the easy way out but took another course of action instead.

Employers can be especially helpful because a letter from an employer offers proof of employment.

How do you ask someone for a character letter?

“I’m currently involved in a legal matter. A character letter might really help me resolve this case in a positive way. Will you help?”

Asking can be awkward, but we recommend being honest and direct without getting into details.

In some cases, it might help to provide details on the qualities you’re hoping the writer will showcase. For example, you might tell your boss:

“You’ve always told me I’m a hard worker and an asset to the company. Will you please write a letter to the court that emphasizes these qualities?”

When should you send a character reference?

You can and should start asking for letters the moment you know you’re in trouble with the law. If you can obtain letters before the DA files formal charges, you may be able to avoid charges altogether. 

If you’re writing for a loved one, know that it’s never too early to help the loved one by providing a well-written character reference letter, and it’s only too late after formal sentencing has occurred.

Where should you send a good character letter or character reference letter?

Send the letter to the defense lawyer or the defendant. You can use any of the following methods:

1. Send it as an email attachment.
2. Send it via fax.
3. Send it to the lawyer via certified mail.
4. Personally drop off the letter at the lawyer’s office.


1. Send it to the DA or the judge personally.  It may not get to the right person.
2. Send it to the court, courthouse, police department, or jail, for the same reason

Who should review a character letter before it is sent?

The letter writer should always review their own work to ensure that it is accurate. 

It’s okay if the writer does not want the defendant to see the letter (and if you are the defendant, you should have grace about this). Your attorney will review every letter to decide whether it will help with the case or not.

Note that the attorney will not provide feedback or give guidance. The attorney will simply decide if the letter is likely to be helpful to your case or not.

What are some other ways to help your case defense?

Gathering character letters is not the only way you can help a defense attorney defend your case. There are other documents you can provide that can be equally helpful, including:

• Proof of employment, such as offer letters, pay stubs, or verification letters.
• Proof of counseling or mental health treatment, such as letters that state you have begun counseling, new prescriptions, or billing documents.
• Proof of military service.
• Possible exculpatory evidence such as witnesses, receipts, phone records, text records, or other items that might provide an alibi.

NOTE: if you have been charged with a crime and are not a US citizen, then you should inform your attorney right away. Cases that involve immigration issues often require a different approach.

An Arrest is Not the End

While it’s tempting to give up and detach from your community after you’ve been arrested, there are good reasons to hold your head high and cling to your support network. The people who know and love you the most may be instrumental in bringing your case to its most positive potential outcome.

Of course, achieving a good outcome for your case starts with help from a great defense lawyer. The Cohen Defense Group is here to help. We’ll explore every avenue for your defense and will carefully review character letters and other evidence to secure every advantage we can find for you. 

Contact us to get help today.

About Amber Zehrung

Amber Zehrung HeadshotAmber Zehrung has been a criminal defense attorney for 20 years in Placer County. She has handled a variety of cases ranging from all types of misdemeanors to a variety of serious and violent felonies. She has had great success in convincing the district attorney to not file charges in cases, to dismiss cases after charges have been filed, and to agree to creative negotiated terms of probation.