After a defendant enters a plea of guilty to a federal offense or is convicted by trial, he or she will meet with a probation officer. Typically at the initial meeting, the probation officer will conduct an interview with the defendant to gather the following information:
- family history
- community ties
- education background
- employment history
- physical health
- mental and emotional health
- history of substance abuse, financial condition, and
- willingness to accept responsibility for his or her offense(s)
During the presentence investigation, a probation officer will interview other persons who can provide pertinent information, including the prosecutor, law enforcement agents, victims, mental health and substance abuse treatment providers, and the defendant’s family members, associates and employer. The officer will also review numerous documents, which may include, court dockets, indictments, plea agreements, trial transcripts, investigative reports from other law enforcement agencies, criminal history records, counseling, and substance abuse treatment records, scholastic records, employment records, and financial records.
When possible, the probation officer conducts a home visit to meet the defendant and the defendant’s family at his/her residence. During the visit, the officer interviews the family and/or assesses the defendant’s living conditions and suitability for potential supervision conditions, such as location monitoring.
It is the responsibility of the probation officer assigned to a presentence investigation to assist the court by verifying, evaluating, and interpreting the information gathered, and to present the information to the court in an organized, objective presentence report. Another important part of the preparation of a presentence report involves the probation officer’s investigation into the offense of conviction including the defendant’s involvement, any similar or uncharged criminal conduct, the impact of the offense on the victim(s), and the sentencing options under the applicable federal statutes and United States Sentencing Guidelines.
The presentence report helps the Court fashion appropriate and fair sentences and is used by probation officers later assigned to supervise the offender. The supervision officer uses the information contained in the presentence report as part of a comprehensive approach to assessing risks posed by, and the needs of, offenders under supervision.
The report is also disclosed to the defendant, defense attorney, and prosecutor, who have the opportunity to make objections or seek changes to the presentence report through a formal process established by the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
Probation officers conducting the presentence investigation and preparing the presentence report to play an integral role in the federal sentencing process.
Although practices differ among the various districts, a probation officer may, at the conclusion of a presentence investigation, work with his/her supervisor to formulate an appropriate sentencing recommendation that will be provided to the court. The officer must be prepared to discuss the case with the sentencing judge, to answer questions about the report that may arise during the sentencing hearing, and on rare occasions to testify in court as to the basis for the factual findings and guideline applications set forth in the presentence report.
After sentencing, these presentence reports are utilized by the Bureau of Prisons to designate the institutions appropriate for an offender to serve their sentences, to select prison programs to help the offenders, and to develop case plans for their custody and eventual release. A presentence report is also forwarded to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which uses the report to monitor the application of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and to gather statistics about sentencing trends.