Once a defendant agrees to a plea deal or is found guilty at trial, a sentencing hearing will soon follow. In the weeks leading up to sentencing, the judge will order a probation officer to carry out a Presentence Investigation. The results of this investigation will influence every aspect of a defendant’s life long after sentencing.
Shortly after a plea agreement or guilty verdict, the probation officer will conduct an interview with the defendant. If a defendant remains free during this time, the interview will likely take place at the probation office. If the defendant is in custody, the interview will take place at the facility where the defendant is being held. Ahead of the interview, the defendant’s attorney should prepare their client for what to expect. If possible, the defendant’s attorney should be present during the interview.
The probation officer will gather vital personal information from the defendant such as family upbringing, financial condition, education level, employment history, living situation, and more. Additionally, the interviewer will ask the defendant to make a personal statement relating to the current offense.
The Report (PSR)
Upon completing the interview and further investigation, the probation officer will create a document called the Presentence Investigation Report, commonly referred to as the “PSR or PSI.” In short, the PSR is a detailed summary of the offense conduct (what the defendant did) and the defendant’s personal history.
The report often includes the following elements:
- Criminal history
- Description of the current offense
- Arresting officer’s statement
- Defendant’s personal statement
- Victim’s statement/impact
- Social Circumstances (Family, education, employment, physical/mental health, drug/alcohol history)
- Potential fines and restitution
The probation officer will then analyze the case and provide the judge with sentencing options and other recommendations. The defendant and their attorney will receive a draft copy of the PSR prior to its official filing with the court. It is critically important that the report be reviewed carefully for accuracy. Changes or corrections to the report must be made within the deadline specified by the author.
Improving the Outcome of the PSR:
The PSR is typically the government’s version of events. Judges don’t have the time to research each individual’s case and they rely heavily on the presentence investigation report. Defendants can improve the outcome of the PSR by telling their side of the story. The single most effective way to accomplish this is through a well thought out and articulate personal statement. A defendant would be wise to work with their attorney to prepare a written statement ahead of the interview and request the statement be inserted directly into the PSR. This assures that no matter who views the PSR in the future, the whole entire story is told.
Additionally, a defendant can take preemptive measures to show that they have accepted responsibility and are ready to address what brought them to the attention of the criminal justice system. Attending counseling, a treatment program, or paying restitution are examples of how a defendant can put themselves in good favor with the court.
The PSR is quite possibly the most vital document in a defendant’s case. This document will influence each stakeholder in the legal process evaluating the defendant. It will dictate aspects of the defendant’s life long after sentencing such as appeals, qualification for programming that could reduce prison time, along with probation/parole conditions. Defendants and attorneys alike should take seriously the importance of the PSR interview process and the accuracy of the final report.
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