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Sentencing: Presentence Report

Origins Of The Psi

The origins of the modern presentence investigation began in the 1840s with the crusading efforts of Boston shoemaker John Augustus (1841–1859). It was Augustus's belief that the "object of the law is to reform criminals and to prevent crime, and not to punish maliciously or from a spirit of revenge" (p. 12). In his efforts to redeem selected offenders, Augustus gathered background information about the offender's life and criminal history. If he determined that the person was worthy, Augustus provided bail money out of his own pocket. If he succeeded in winning the person's release, he helped them find employment and housing. Later he appeared at the sentencing hearing and provided the judge with a detailed report of the person's performance. Augustus would then recommend that the judge suspend the sentence and release the person to his custody.

Considered the father of modern probation, Augustus's leadership led the Massachusetts legislature to establish the nation's first probation law in 1878. By authorizing the mayor of Boston to appoint a member of the police department to serve as a paid probation officer, this statute formalized the practice of extending probation to individuals deemed capable of being reformed. The law was expanded in 1891 with the creation of an independent statewide probation system. By the time that the National Probation Act was passed in 1925 creating a federal probation service, the majority of states had probation statutes.

The evolution of the presentence investigation was given further impetus by the reformatory movement of the 1870s. Because reformatory movement proponents advocated an individualized approach toward the redemption of the criminal, indeterminate sentencing became a popular sentencing reform throughout the later half of the nineteenth century and became the standard form of sentencing throughout the United States until the 1980s.

Simultaneously with the development of probation and the indeterminate sentence, the evolution of the social sciences gave rise to the medical model of corrections during the 1920s and 1930s. The medical model was founded on the belief that crime was the result of individual pathology that could be diagnosed and treated like a disease. Judges simply needed to know the problem in order to prescribe treatment.

As these systems and approaches evolved, the need for more information about the defendant became critical. By the 1930s, one of the primary tasks of probation officers throughout the country was the preparation of the presentence investigation report.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawSentencing: Presentence Report - Origins Of The Psi, Content Of The Psi, Psi Case Law, Defense-based Presentence Reports