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 Presentence Investigation FAQs 

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Michael Santos

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The following article offers one person’s responses to Frequently Asked Questions about the presentence investigation and report. Wendy is a former lawyer who served time in federal prison. We offer income opportunities for formerly incarcerated people to the extent we’re able, and to help others, we asked Wendy to respond to questions about the presentence investigation and what she knew about it before sentencing.

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Personal Experience: Wendy

Six months on the other side of my time in federal prison, I’m sitting at my computer thinking about the journey. A specific question comes to mind:

Did I understand the presentence investigation process as I went through the criminal justice system?

The honest answer is not much. At the time, I was in denial about my criminal case and the prospect of prison time. I went to the presentence investigation (PSI) interview with no overarching mitigation strategy. 

I knew I had to be honest. And I knew to cover my substance abuse issues in detail to qualify for the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP). Click here to learn about RDAP. 

In the end, I was lucky. I reported to federal prison to serve my sentence, qualified for RDAP as expected and received a one-year time cut plus six months in a halfway house. On a 58-month sentence, I spent 27 months away from home in federal prison. Things worked out about as well as I could have hoped.

Not everyone is as lucky. Many people in prison struggle to correct mistakes or misinformation in their presentence investigation report (PSR). Their attorneys never reviewed the PSR or took the opportunity to ask for corrections before it was final. 

The repercussions of these mistakes are real. For example, some people in prison fail to qualify for early release jobs and programs, get needed medical treatment, or get designation to a facility consistent with their security risk. All because of misinformation or mistakes in the PSR.

A person can prepare for better outcomes by taking time to understand the PSR and its influence throughout the journey:

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the presentence investigation?

After a criminal conviction at trial or guilty plea, the court orders the US Probation office to conduct a presentence investigation in aid of sentencing. The PSI can be defined as an investigation to understand the defendant as a person, the circumstances surrounding the defendant’s crime, and to propose an appropriate sentence to the court.

What is the purpose of the PSI & PSR?

Their primary purpose is to provide sufficient information to assist the court in deciding on an appropriate and fair sentence, consistent with the punishment, deterrence, and corrective goals of sentencing.

What type of information is part of the PSI & PSR?

As summarized for the court in the PSR, the PSI covers in detail the history — including educational, criminal, family, and social background — of a person convicted of a crime. It summarizes for the court the background information needed to determine an appropriate and fair sentence.

What happens during the presentence investigation?

During the presentence investigation, a US probation officer interviews the defendant and other people who can provide relevant information, including the prosecutor, law enforcement agents, victims, mental health and substance abuse treatment providers, family members, associates, defense counsel, and employers. After the investigation, the US probation officer will write the PSR, consolidating all the pertinent information for the sentencing judge. The Federal Bureau of Prisons will also use the information contained in the PSR for several purposes. For example, BOP uses information from the PSR  to determine an inmate’s security risk level and prison designation. 

Will I be drug tested at my presentence investigation interview?

Not typically. However, a probation officer can drug test for purposes of the PSI at any time. 

How long does the PSI interview take?

Generally, the interview lasts 2-4 hours and takes place at the US Probation office. It could go longer, so it’s best to be available as long as necessary. The probation officer controls the schedule. In some cases, US Probation also does a home visit. Advanced preparation for the presentence interview and home visit is vital. 

How does the Bureau of Prisons use the information in the PSR?

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) classifies inmates based on a security classification system. The BOP places a considerable amount of weight on the PSR. The BOP trusts the information contained in the PSR because it comes from the US Probation Office. Where additional information contradicts or undermines information in the PSR, the BOP accepts the version in the PSR.

The BOP’s understanding of the person in custody is shaped primarily by the PSR, which provides them with an overview of the criminal case and the defendant’s personal background (health conditions, family situation, and past criminal record), among other things.

For starters, the BOP relies on the PSR to classify the inmate and assign a security level to determine the level of supervision the defendant requires and where the defendant will spend their sentence. The BOP uses the PSR for many other purposes, including verifying education and offering programming opportunities, such as drug education and substance abuse programs in prison.

What are some tips for the presentence interview?

  • Arrive on time.
  • Be prepared. 
  • Be forthcoming. For example, be prepared to discuss your criminal offense. Remember that the probation officer will share your answers and demeanor with the sentencing judge. Accept responsibility as appropriate. Show remorse. 
  • Consult with legal counsel in advance.
  • Consult with sentencing mitigation experts in advance. Have a sentencing mitigation strategy. 
  • Do not hold back from discussing any substance abuse and mental health issues, especially as related to RDAP. 
  • Bring a contact list of people that you suggest the probation officer interview as part of the investigation.
  • Share your medical issues, including any history of significant medical problems, current medical problems, prior treatment, medications. This information will follow you to the BOP should you receive a prison sentence. 
  • Bring a complete list of prescription medications and dosages.

Does the probation officer talk to my defense team about mitigating circumstances?

Probation might also speak with your defense attorney and the prosecutors involved in the case. Your attorneys should seek out the probation officer conducting the investigation to explain your involvement in the offense and any mitigating circumstances that should be considered at sentencing.

Does probation interview the victims during the presentence investigation?

Probation may very well be interested in talking to victims. The Victim Impact Statement section of the PSR may include the views of victims.  

Are there additional factors that probation considers during the PSI?

Don’t overlook the fact that behavior during pretrial supervision is also part of the investigation. Your ability to comply with the rules of your pretrial release and reporting requirements during pretrial is a critical aspect of the investigation. 

For more information about the presentence investigation, check out another article from Prison Professors here: Presentence investigations.

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