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Sentencing: Presentence Report

Content Of The Psi

Offender-based reports. The traditional PSI was intended to provide the judge with comprehensive background information about the offender. Under this model, the PSI was intended to promote individualized sentencing by giving information specific to the offender's potential for rehabilitation and community reintegration and allow judges to tailor their sentence accordingly. The offender-based PSI is integral to a sentencing system founded on rehabilitation.

The elements of an offender-based report includes a summary of the offense, the offender's role, prior criminal justice involvement, and a social history with an emphasis on family history, employment, education, physical and mental health, financial condition, and future prospects. Based on this thorough background analysis, a probation officer renders a sentencing recommendation. A 1978 publication by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts described the essential elements of a typical offender-based PSI. It specifies that the presentence report shall contain "any prior criminal record of the defendant and such information about his characteristics affecting his behavior as may be helpful in imposing sentence and such other information as may be required by the court" (p. 3). In this type of PSI, little consideration is given to the offense or victim concerns. Figure 1 Instead, the primary role of the probation officer is to investigate the offender's background.

Although standards differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, Figure 1 provides an outline of the federal probation system's format for a typical offender-based PSI.

Offense-based reports. In recent years, as the indeterminate sentence and its rehabilitative ideal was replaced by determinate sentencing and the punishment ideology, the PSI has undergone major transformations. The primary purpose of determinate sentencing is not to rehabilitate, but to impose a predetermined range of fixed sentences. Such sentencing laws can take many forms—such as statutory determinate sentencing and guideline sentencing.

Statutory determinate sentencing requires a judge to choose from a narrow range of statutorily mandated sentencing options. For example, when imposing a prison sentence under California's sentencing system, a judge must choose one of three potential periods of confinement. Periods of confinement might include two, four, or six years of imprisonment, with the PSI providing information on the defendant's culpability. Decisions on culpability are based on the defendant's actions and motivations in carrying out the offense. If the defendant was a primary instigator who inflicted excessive harm or damage, an aggravated term would likely be justified. In contrast, a defendant who participated in the offense under duress and did not occupy a leadership role may be eligible for the mitigated term. Under this sentencing system the primary role of the probation officer in preparing the PSI is to determine the mitigated and aggravating circumstances that apply.

Guideline sentencing further restricts the range of sentencing options by requiring judges to base their sentence on numerical formulas of offense severity and criminal history. In most guidelines systems these scores are calibrated on a sentencing grid, with judges given limited discretion in deviating from the guidelines. In order to deviate from the guidelines, judges must state their reasons in writing. The federal government instituted guideline sentencing in the late 1980s. At that time the federal probation system shifted from an offender-based PSI to a offense-based PSI. Because of the restrictive nature of guideline sentencing, PSIs are no longer required in some states where guidelines sentencing was adopted. Probation officers in these jurisdictions simply complete a guideline worksheet that calculates the prescribed sentence.

In other guidelines states, however, judges retain a considerable amount of sentencing discretion, for one or more of the following reasons: the guidelines are voluntary rather than legally binding; the prescribed guidelines sentence permits a broad range of choices as to the type or severity of punishment for a given case; or the guidelines recognize a wide variety of permissible justifications for deviating from the prescribed sentence. In these jurisdictions, PSIs continue to provide much information about the offender (as well as details of the offense and the application of guidelines rules to the instant case).

Offense-based PSIs are concerned with the offender's culpability and prior record. As a result, offense-based PSIs are more succinct and less concerned with the offender' s personal background. The elements outlined in Figure 2 constitute an offense-based PSI.

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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