How to Write a Recommendation Letter for a Pardon

Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images

It’s a request you may hear only once in a lifetime, and even recognizing this fact raises the stakes. Someone you know, and presumably know well, has asked you to write a recommendation letter for a pardon. You know this is no mere reference for employment; what you say could spell the difference between someone’s freedom and continued incarceration. Still, if you reduce this letter to what it essentially is – a character reference – you will surely rise to the task.

Do Your Homework

You know the stakes are high, so confirm the name, address, city, state and postal code of the recipient (or recipients). You may be writing to the state board of pardons. Or you may be writing directly to the governor of a state, who has the power to erase a conviction. Either way, double and even triple-check the spelling of first and last names. Even a misspelling could unwittingly undermine an otherwise hopeful pardon attempt. Also find out the preferred method of transmittal. Some authorities may accept emails; others may accept only those letters sent through the postal service.

Open with a Purpose Statement

Begin with gusto, explaining that you’re writing a recommendation for a pardon. Include the person’s full name. Then write a sentence or two describing your relationship to the person – for example, if you were the person’s employer, colleague or neighbor. Short and concise, your introduction should exude polite urgency.

Build Your “Case”

It may help to think of your recommendation letter as a form of an argument, which it is. You are trying to persuade someone to do something: grant a pardon. And you have to provide persuasive reasons to bring about this action. If it helps, brainstorm on paper or the computer. Don’t be in a rush to complete the letter in one session. Even professional writers understand the value of writing one day, then revisiting their words the next day and making changes to improve their work.

To ensure that your letter stays on-topic, provide your rationale for why you believe the person deserves a pardon. For example, you might say that you know the person has made amends, shows contrition and has undergone personal reform to bring about a change in character. These are persuasive reasons.

The key to any argument is providing support, so now back up each reason with at least one example or illustration. In other words, describe how the person has made amends, how the person demonstrates contrition and which character changes you’ve recognized. Specificity is vital, so if you cannot support one of your reasons, it should serve as a red flag. In other words, either take some time to think about explaining the reason or conceive of a new reason entirely. Symmetry of ideas is vital to an argument, too.

Designating at least one paragraph for each reason should suffice. But now is a good time to remember that like most letters, the recipient is more likely to read a recommendation for a pardon if it is confined to one page. (And yes: you can always downsize the font, but not below the “readability factor” of 11 points.)

Close with Confidence

End your letter with a call to action, saying that you hope the person grants the pardon but that if your letter triggers questions or concerns, you hope the recipient will get in touch with you. (Be sure to include your contact information.) Edit and proofread your letter carefully before sending it.

Expect the Unexpected

If you think that writing a recommendation letter for a pardon is a “first,” prepare for another first: attending a pardon hearing. It’s not unusual for people who write such letters to be invited to attend a pardon hearing to amplify the views expressed in their letter. If this happens to you, remember that since you rose to the task of writing the recommendation letter, you can surely rise to the occasion again.