What Are Judges Thinking?

Many times, defendants and defense attorneys have no idea how a judge makes his or her decisions. What are the specific factors that sway a judge to be lenient with one defendant but harsh with another?

As reported by the American Bar Association, an Illinois judge recently got reassigned after sharing his sentencing philosophy with court personnel and lawyers. See ABA, Martha Neil, Judge describes his sentencing philosophy, is reassigned to civil court in another county (March 5, 2013).

Judge Michael Risinger, a former public defender, prepared an outline detailing issues he considered important when making a sentencing decision. In the outline, the judge wrote: “Young black males deserve a break if they deserve it. You can tell by their dress and attitude. Get my attention.”

Judge Risinger later said that the comments were not racist and applied to all defendants, regardless of race, that were seeking a sentencing break. However, Judge Risinger’s boss, said that the note “standing in isolation” was inappropriate; and the Judge was subsequently transferred to civil court.

Many judges want to give a defendant a break if they “deserve a break.”

Despite the misfortune that Judge Risinger’s career may have suffered based on his decision to write down and distribute some of his sentencing philosophy, his philosophy is probably not unique. Placing the racial comment aside, many judges want to give a defendant a break if they “deserve a break.”

So, how can a defendant show a judge that he or she deserves a break?

Judge Risinger’s outline provides some basic advice: dress well and have a good attitude. Of course, this does not mean that a defendant needs to have an expensive, custom tailored suit. Nice slacks that are actually pulled up (as opposed to cut up jeans or track pants), and a nice looking, tucked-in, shirt (not a t-shirt) are appropriate for a court appearance. The way you dress can be the first sign of your attitude towards the judge and the legal system. The judge wants to know you take your situation seriously. Your appearance makes an impression on the judge before you even open your mouth.

Then, when you do open your mouth, make sure you have the right attitude and address the judge and other court personnel with respect. This is the time to look people in the eye and say “Your Honor”; “Yes, Maam”; “Yes Sir”.

Finally, if there are circumstances of your case that indicate you deserve a break, make sure you have discussed these with your attorney and have practiced telling your story. You do not want to blame other people for your actions. You do not want to say that you got caught because of someone else. You want to take responsibility for your actions, and admit that you messed up. You want to be able to tell the Judge that you have a plan to stay on the right track from now on.

Judge Risinger’s outline contained clues for defendants that were mostly common sense, but also good reminders that little things such as dress and attitude can make a big difference. When facing a criminal sentence, you want everything possible – including all the little things — to go in your favor.