What’s Involved in a Presentence Evaluation?

presentence investigation report (PSIR) is a legal term referring to the investigation into the history of person convicted of a crime before sentencing to determine if there are extenuating circumstances which should ameliorate the sentence or a history of criminal behavior to increase the harshness of the sentence. The PSIR has been said to fulfill a number of purposes, including serving as a charging document and exhibit proving criminal conduct, and is said to be akin to a magistrate judge’s report and recommendation.

The reports trace their origins to the efforts of prison reformer John Augustus who in the 1840s began a campaign to allow discretion in sentencing to help those who were deemed undeserving of harsh sentences and could be reformed. The practice became firmly entrenched in the 1920s under a theory that crime was a pathology that could be diagnosed and treated like a disease.[2]

The information included in a typical PSIR encompasses both legal and extralegal information about the defendant such as:[3][4]

Legal Information

  • Juvenile record
  • Adult record
  • Probation/parole history
  • Official version of offense
  • Plea bargain
  • Custody status
  • Pending cases

Extralegal Information

  • Probation officer recommendations
  • Gang affiliation
  • Background and ties to the community
  • Substance abuse history
  • Physical health
  • Mental health
  • Financial circumstances
  • Employment history
  • Education history
  • Victim-impact statement
  • Marital history
  • Military record
  • Evaluative/needs summary

One may note that there is considerably more extralegal information contained within the PSIR. This is important because many have seen this as suggestive of sentencing disparities or inequality in the treatment of offenders with a lower socioeconomic status or little to few ties to the community, but As Alarid and Montemayor (2010, p. 130) state, “The use of extralegal factors becomes especially important in that the PSIR identifies needs related to the defendant’s criminal behavior for future treatment intervention services”

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