Straight-A Guide Mitigation: An Introduction

Straight-A Guide Mitigation: An Introduction

Welcome to our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program. We based this program on all that our team has learned from working with federal judges, federal prosecutors, and federal probation officers. We also draw upon our personal experience of working with hundreds of people as they prepared for sentencing. For those who are new to our program, we’ll explain all of this below. 

Our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program is a tool, not an answer sheet. Use this tool to prepare for the best possible outcome.

Introduction to the Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program:

As our websites show, our partners have worked on sentencing and prison reform across the United States for many years. Some participants accessing this program from inside a correctional facility may not have access to internet research. With that in mind, this initial lesson offers:  

  • Background information on how we began the program.
  • Information on why we’re convinced the program can help you.
  • Information on our background and what we’ve learned by working with stakeholders at every level.

If you’re a participant who is already familiar with our work, then you may want to skip through to the next section. Use what you find relevant. But if you’re familiar with our personal stories, then feel free to advance. We draw from what we’ve learned because there are teachable moments in every lesson. 

Use those teachable moments. They will advance your argument for the best possible outcome at the sentencing hearing and beyond. 


Everyone should know something about the work of our team members at Prison Professors. We regularly interact with stakeholders of the system. 

  • Judicial conference organizers retain our team members to present on what happens after a judge sentences someone to the custody of the attorney general.
  • Legislative aides retain our team members to consider and comment on how different policies will influence the criminal justice system.
  • Leaders of various prison systems invite our founders to serve as keynote speakers, advisors, or program creators.

Through our interactions with those leaders, we develop insight that can be of particular benefit to people who are going through the criminal justice system. Most defendants will have legal representation. At the same time, experience convinces us that defendants should think independently about what steps they could take to influence the process. In developing a mitigation plan, a person should think about every step in the process—including: 

  • Preparing for the presentence investigation report and considering how to influence the process.
  • Preparing for the sentencing hearing and how to make a favorable influence on the judge.
  • Preparing for the sanction and considering how to influence the best possible experience in dealing with the sanction, whether it includes prison or an alternative sentence.
  • Preparing for the challenges that will accompany post-release supervision.
  • Preparing early for the eventual request to terminate post-release supervision.
  • Preparing to resume a life of meaning and relevance after the prison term ends. 

We have learned a great deal about steps that defendants can take to put themselves on a course for the best possible outcome. When criminal justice leaders retain members of our team to develop and refine programs, we get the benefit of having one-on-one conversations with the stakeholder. Lessons we’ve learned from those conversations form the basis of our Straight-A Guide Sentence Mitigation Program. We’ll share those lessons with participants of this course. 

Our programs teach strategies to influence stakeholders. We begin by urging all participants to understand that objective. Stakeholders want people who have been charged with a crime to work toward reconciling with society. Judges and prosecutors want to make communities safer. The punishments they dispense are not personal. Rather, their decisions reveal the stakeholder’s thoughts on whether a person is worthy of more or less punishment. 

No one can change the past. A mitigation effort begins with a question:

What steps can I take today—given past circumstances—to influence the outcome I want? 

A mitigation effort should show a 100% commitment to building a case that answers the question above. 


Stakeholders have spoken publicly about our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program. They find it a useful tool when deliberating on whether a candidate is worthy of a downward departure at sentencing. 

To validate this claim, please watch our videos. The link to the video below shows U.S. Attorney Alicia Limtiaco speaking in the national media about our Straight-A Guide Program: 

Ms. Limtiaco is the U.S. Attorney for the District of Guam. She retained our team to develop mitigation programs for her judicial district. A television network filmed Ms. Limtiaco speaking about the Straight-A Guide as being proof that a person can become more than a past bad decision. 

You can also read or watch how law professors and federal judges advise defendants to adhere to the strategies that we teach through our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program. For example, leaders at U.C. Hastings Law School invited our team to serve as program leaders at a full-day symposium on sentence reform. We presented these concepts. Judges told us that to the extent a defendant lives in accordance with the strategies we describe, a defendant could influence the sentence.

Defendants should take steps to show the judge a pattern of authenticity. 

What Do Judges Know About Defendants?

To start a mitigation effort, a defendant should realize that the only information a judge has about them comes from what various people have presented in court. Prosecutors make allegations based on what they learned from investigators. The prosecutors do not have a personal relationship with the defendant. The prosecutor may not know much, other than what they’ve learned about the offense. Defense attorneys make statements. The judge may hear from victims or he may have considered other evidence. 

The important point to recognize here is that a mitigation effort should be part of a strategy. The strategy should help others see the defendant for more than simply their criminal behavior. We should concern ourselves with every stakeholder in the process. 

For now, let’s try to keep our focus on the judge. What does the judge know about the person? And what will differentiate one defendant from another? 

Many defendants will say: 

“I’m sorry for what I’ve done.” 

Saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough to move a judge.  A judge will want to know how much work the defendant has put in to show remorse. A solid mitigation strategy must capture all of that work. Otherwise, the judge may mistakenly infer that the defendant is simply offering a canned, or boilerplate, answer. 

As an example of how our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program works, we use an analogy from elementary school math class. Remember the dreadful, confusing math word problems? To refresh your memory, here’s an example of a word problem: 

A factory makes 4,250 bars of chocolate. There were three kinds of chocolate bars—creamy, milky, and white. The number of white chocolate bars was 715 more than the number of milky chocolate bars. The number of creamy chocolate bars was 5 times the number of milky chocolate bars. How many creamy chocolate bars did the factory make? 

The answer is 2,525. We know that answer because we looked at the answer key for the problem. Yet if a student simply wrote 2,525 in the answer box, the teacher may not award full credit. The teacher would want to know how the student arrived at the solution. In other words, teachers want students to show their work. 

Similar to the math analogy above, judges want defendants who implement mitigation efforts to show their work. 

We offer this insight because we know that many people will judge you in the future. Many of those people read accusations that give them a biased view of your life. Consider the following examples: 

  • An FBI agent, or an agent from the Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS, or a DEA agent, or some other investigative response to a complaint of criminal wrongdoing.
    • Would you say that investigator starts with a blank slate?
    • Does the investigator begin with the presumption of innocence?
    • Does the investigator have any concerns about the good that a defendant has done in society?
  • The investigator creates a report for a prosecutor. In that report, the investigator shows the prosecutor the alleged crime, and the prosecutor begins to architect a plan.
    • Does the prosecutor have any concern about how the charge will influence the life or career of the defendant?
    • Which does the prosecutor desire: justice or a conviction?
    • Will the prosecutor invest any energy in showing fact-finders that—despite the criminal charge—the defendant made community contributions? 
  • The defense attorney may fight valiantly to exonerate a defendant. The defense attorney will look for case law and other arguments to sow seeds of doubt. Or the defense attorney may craft strategies to minimize exposure to severe sanctions.
    • How many hours will the defense attorney invest in the case?
    • Will the defense attorney devote those hours to the facts and rules of evidence, or get to know the defendant’s personal characteristics?
    • If the defense attorney focuses on the facts of the crime, how will stakeholders know anything about the defendant?

From our work as policy advisors, we know that judges give a lot of thought to sentencing. Yet from talking with those judges, we also know that judges want more information. They want to know why the defendant is worthy of mercy. Judges want the defendant to reveal personal information that will not come from the criminal investigator, from the prosecutor, or from the defense attorney. 

Without insight into the defendant’s personal story, the judge will only know about the criminal charge. And boilerplate responses like the following do not show the judge why a defendant is a candidate for mercy: 

I’m sorry for what I did.

Please forgive me.

I’m going to miss my kids and family.

Since my arrest, God has shown me the way.

Please give me a low sentence. 

All of the above statements may be sincere. But an effective mitigation strategy must provide the judge with a solid understanding of how he or she has grown from this experience. As with the sample mathematical word problem mentioned above, a defendant should do more than provide the answer. The defendant must show the work he put in to get there. Defendants do well when they can show why they’re worthy of mercy. 

Every defendant says he is sorry. Every defendant asks for a lower sentence. Our job is to build a systemic pathway that will show a defendant’s responses to the following questions: 

  • What has the defendant learned from this experience?
  • In what ways has the defendant identified with victims?
  • What steps has the defendant taken to make things right?
  • Why can we be sure the defendant will not come into the criminal justice system again?
  • Why should the Court show mercy on this defendant? 

As our many published interviews show, we’ve built a solid team. Our work appears on several websites, including,, and There is one reason why law-enforcement professionals endorse our program and issue purchase orders: They want more people who go through the system to emerge successfully, as law-abiding, contributing citizens. 

For that reason, we’ve developed our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program. Besides validation from law enforcement officers, look to members of our team as a source of validation for our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program: 

Shon Hopwood:

By leading a values-based, goal-oriented life, Shon completely changed his image. He transformed from a label of “armed-bank robber” to lawyer, advocate for policy reform, and Georgetown Law Professor. Shon attributes his success to the same strategies we teach in our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program. 

Justin Paperny:

Prior to his imprisonment, Justin Paperny was a licensed securities broker with a degree from the University of Southern California. While serving time for crimes related to the violation of securities laws, he worked through the Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program. Through those strategies, Justin opened client relationships with several law enforcement systems. Clients that include the FBI and the Department of Justice, as well as universities and businesses in the corporate sector have paid Justin for his work. Justin attributes his success to the same strategies we teach in our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program. 

Michael Santos:

A federal judge sentenced Michael to serve a 45-year sentence because he started selling cocaine when he was 20. Michael began serving that sentence when he was 23. While serving the sentence, Michael began living in accordance with our Straight-A Guide principles. Michael attributes his well-documented success through prison and beyond to the same strategies we teach in our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program. 


Our team never asks anyone to say or do anything that we did not do. Each of us continues to live by these principles today. Since we know what it takes to prepare for the best possible outcome, we ask each of our clients to do the work. Every person is different. When assigning our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program, we take those differentiators into consideration: 

  • Some people did not finish high school. Other people hold advanced degrees.
  • Some people struggle with financial resources. Other people have an abundance of financial resources.
  • Some people face charges for crimes that include violence. Other clients face charges for white-collar crimes.
  • Some people do not have a criminal history. Other people have faced sentencing hearings in the past. 

With those differentiators in mind, we cannot create a boilerplate mitigation program. Every individual is different. To put someone on track for the best possible outcome, we need individuals to understand differentiators. We need people to introspect. This strategy can prove influential to people who will judge the individual in the future. Some of those individuals include: 

  • The Probation Officer who will write the Presentence Investigation Report.
  • The Judge who will impose the sentence.
  • The officials in the Bureau of Prisons that will determine placement, or custody-and-classification categories.
  • The officers in the Bureau of Prisons who will determine whether a person qualifies for early-release programs.
  • The Probation Officer who will assign levels of liberty in the future.
  • The Federal Judge who will determine whether the person is suitable for early termination of Supervised Release. 

The Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program takes each of those stakeholders into consideration. For that reason, we encourage our clients to learn about the history of the Straight-A Guide. Learn how our team at developed the program. We recommend that participants read the following books as a primer: 

Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term

This book shows the origin of our program and it shows why it’s essential to visualize the best possible outcome. It shows how leading a values-based, goal-oriented life can sow seeds for reconciliation with society. The book also provides insight on how to sustain a high level of discipline and energy while growing through struggle. 

Prison: My 8,344th Day

This book shows how daily decisions show a commitment to success through prison and beyond. 

Success After Prison: How I Built Assets Worth $1,000,000 Within Two Years of Release After 26 Years in Prison (And How You Can Succeed, Too!)

This book shows the result of values-based, goal-oriented decisions. The strategies we teach do more than lead people through prison. Those strategies also put people on a path to success on the other side of the journey. 

We purposely recommend this reading list. We want our clients to have a solid foundation on the principles behind our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program. The books reveal the reasons behind each task that we invite our participants to complete. We’re striving to document a journey. That documentation will show others why a successful participant is worthy of the best possible outcome. 

Those who feel that they have a solid foundation from our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program should begin working through our ten modules. When responding to questions, please keep all stakeholders in mind. 

If you’ve worked with our team on a personal narrative, you should have some idea of what it means to work through our modules. In our narratives, we always include an abbreviated version of introspection. Introspection is the start of any mitigation effort. The remainder of the program is much more comprehensive. 


Our program begins with a full understanding of values. The books we recommend show what it means to define success. But for an abbreviated explanation on the importance of defining success, we can show how that pattern contributed to the best possible outcome for each of our partners: 

Shon Hopwood:

Shon pleaded guilty to five armed bank robberies. Yet there came a time in his life when he wanted to become a lawyer. He would need to persuade judges that despite his criminal conviction, he had the moral character and fitness to practice law. To overcome that hurdle, Shon needed to show the work he put in. He needed to show how he defined success and the specific steps he took that led to his overcoming struggle. By revealing that story, other people could see he was authentic. As a result, they stopped judging him for the bad decisions he made that led him to prison. Instead, they judged him in accordance with the values-based, goal-oriented life that he lived.

Justin Paperny:

Justin Paperny pleaded guilty to securities fraud. That type of conviction could make others resistant to doing business with him. Yet while serving his sentence, Justin articulated his story. By writing his story, he created a new narrative for his life. That new narrative showed what he valued. The narrative also influenced how others would judge or assess him. As a result, when Justin finished serving his prison term, he had an easier journey through Supervised Release. Further, his narrative resulted in his launching platforms that would lead to a substantial revenue stream. Rather than hiding from his background, Justin used his background as a tool to build new businesses, including

Michael Santos

Michael went to prison when our country was at the dawn of the War on Drugs. A federal judge slammed Michael with a 45-year prison term. Yet at the start of his journey, writings by Socrates and other inspiring leaders taught Michael to think differently. Rather than lamenting over the troubles wrought by his own actions, Michael began to think about the people he would meet in the future. He considered what they would expect from him. Then he crafted a plan that would lead him to success as he defined success. In Michael’s case, he focused on earning an education, contributing to society, and building a support network.

A mitigation effort begins with a clear understanding of the best possible outcome. All participants would like to change the past. Doing so means different decisions that would leave us out of the crosshairs of the criminal justice system. But we can’t turn back the clock. We have to live in the world as it exists—not as we would like it to be. With that in mind, we must define success as the best possible outcome. 

What is it? 

In Earning Freedom, we show how essential it is to change our thinking. Instead of thinking of our own problems, we think about the people we’re going to encounter in the future. 

  • Who are those people that we want to encounter in the future?
  • How will the decisions we’ve made in the past influence the way that those people will judge us?
  • What steps can we take today to influence the way that those people will judge us? 

These types of questions help us to develop a clear definition of success. If we know the different ways we want to define success in our future, we can begin to craft a workable plan. We cannot undo our past decisions. But if we’re on this pathway to success, we can show how we’re charting a course to reconcile with society. We can show how our decisions today will keep us out of the criminal justice system in the future. 

In the end, we should create a document that reflects a commitment to success. The mitigation effort we create must show that we’re honest. It must show that we’ve been honest with the people we anticipate meeting in the future. As we make decisions, we must show that we’re not thinking about our own problems. Instead, we’re thinking about the people we want to influence in our future. 

  • What is the judge thinking about me today? 
  • What does the judge know about my commitment to living a law-abiding life? 
  • How can I persuade a judge that I’ve given a great deal of thought to the influences that led to my criminal conviction? 

Answering those questions requires us to think a great deal about how we got into the predicament we’re in today. In the books that we list above, we show the approach that our team takes. But this mitigation effort isn’t about our team. This mitigation effort is your approach to defining success. To show your judge and others how hard you’re working to build a better future. Show that you’re taking a methodical, deliberate path to prepare for success. 

Think of the following exercise as a start. It is an accelerator that will bring new levels of success to your life. You’ll also find that by using the deliberate process, you will begin rebuilding your life. 

Task: Try to see yourself from the perspective of others. With that end in mind, please write your responses to the following questions.

  • Who are the victims of my crime?
  • What role did I play in this crime? 
  • How did I get involved in this offense?
  • What was I thinking when I made the decision that exposed me to these charges? 
  • What am I striving to accomplish by working through this exercise?

You’re about to make the biggest sale of your life. You must work toward influencing how others you will meet in the future judge you. As of right now, those people may be biased. They may base their judgments on decisions you made at the worst time in your life. Through our mitigation effort, we’re going to show the work that you put in. We’re going to show how you’re architecting a plan that will lead to your reconciliation with society. By going through this work, we can show how you did the following:

  • You visualized the best possible outcome.
  • You crafted a plan that would take you from where you are, to where you want to go.
  • You put priorities in place. 
  • You executed your plan every day. 

This plan is the essence of our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program. Put the work in. Rely upon our team to guide you along the way.

Introspection Exercise: 

Instead of thinking about myself, I’m thinking about others. I am thinking about how others define me today:

  1. How do the people that investigated my crime view me?
  1. With the evidence that he has seen, what does the prosecutor think about me as a human being?
  1. What thoughts do my victims have about me?
  1. How have my actions influenced the lives of others?
  1. In what ways have my actions influenced the community where I live?
  1. What steps can I take today to work toward reconciling with society and making things right?
  1. With the information that he has, what is the judge thinking about my character as a human being?
  1. What do others know about the influences that led to where I am right now?
  1. If others knew more about the influences in my life, how would they perceive me?
  1. Given the decisions I’ve made in the past, what is the best possible outcome for my life in the months, years, and decades ahead?