Purpose of the Federal Presentence Interview with a United States Probation Officer

Soon after you are found guilty or plead guilty to a federal crime you will meet with a United States Probation Officer who will complete a presentence investigation and then prepare a report (PSIR) for the judge’s use at sentencing. If the judge sentences you to prison, then the PSIR will also be used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in making housing and other relevant determinations. Consequently, it is essential that the PSIR be accurate and complete. What follows is a description of the kind of information the probation officer will collect during your interview as well as how to be well prepared for this important process.

Why is the Federal Presentence Report Prepared?

The purpose of the presentence investigation and report is to provide comprehensive information about the offender that is both objective and accurate.  This information and report will be used by the court in making the appropriate sentencing decision. The report also will assist the Bureau of Prisons in making proper determinations relative to the management of the inmates under their supervision.

The federal law of criminal procedure applicable to presentence reports is found at 18 U.S. Code § 3552, which provides that a presentence investigation and report is mandatory.  This law also provides that the PSIR shall be prepared in accordance with Rule 32 of the Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure. 18 U.S. Code § 3552 also provides that the report shall be submitted to the court prior to a person being sentenced.

Furthermore, that the report must be provided to the defendant, their attorney and to the government lawyer at least 10 days prior to sentencing. See 18 U.S.C. § 3552(d). However, if your case is pending in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, then local court rule 32.1(a) provides that the probation officer must serve the PSIR to the defendant and their attorney that at least 35 days before the sentencing date.

What Information is Collected Before or During the Federal Presentence Interview?

Rule 32 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure sets forth all the information a federal probation officer is required to collect from the defendant prior to sentencing. This information broadly includes the defendant’s biographical history and any personal attributes that distinguish them from other offenders.

This information will include things like prior criminal history, if any, net worth and other detailed financial information, a description of life circumstances that may have impacted the defendant’s life and decision to engage in criminal behavior, psychological and mental health status, family history, drug use and rehabilitation history, and where applicable, a description of non-incarcerative sentencing alternatives available. Rule 32 also provides that the defendant’s attorney must be given notice and reasonable opportunity to attend the presentence interview.

Additional related information will be collected as well.  This will include your race, ethnicity, gender, education, and your past and present place of residence. Also, the probation officer will be asking about your marital status, the marital status of your parents and your relationship with them as well any siblings you may have. The probation officer will want to know if you have any children.  They will also ask questions about whether you experienced any problems at home growing up. Other areas of inquiry include your educational, vocation and employment history, whether you have any professional or vocation licenses or certificates and if you have a military history. Finally, the probation officer may ask you to describe your physical and mental health.

What Can I do to Prepare for My Presentence Interview?

To help you provide all the necessary information you are likely to be supplied with one or more questionnaires that the United States Probation Officer will want you to complete and return prior to the interview.

In addition to filling out this paperwork, you should discuss with your lawyer how you will prepare for the personal interview and how you will work together to provide with PO with all the necessary information. The goal of this preparation is two-fold.  First, you want to be sure that all favorable and mitigating information is in the report so that the sentencing judge has this information available in determining the individually appropriate sentence in your case. Secondly, you will want to be thinking ahead to any time you may be required to spend in prison. In this regard, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will be using the PSIR for a variety of reasons.  These reasons are discussed in more detail below.

Are Private Psychological Evaluations Helpful?

As part of this preparation, you may consider having one or more psychological evaluations done, and then bring the written evaluation to the interview.  For example, if you have been convicted of a drug crime, you may wish to have a substance use evaluation performed.  If you are accused of child pornography or another sex crime, then you may wish to have a psychosexual evaluation done.  These evaluations can be very helpful in conveying to the judge the kind of person you are and what you have done to address any underlying issues that brought you into the criminal justice system to begin with.

What About Letters of Recommendation?

You might also consider having friends, family, co-workers, therapists, pastoral counselors, coaches, teachers, etc., prepare a letter of recommendation to the judge.  These letters are most helpful if they address how you have responded to the criminal arrest and measures you have taken to correct whatever life-circumstance lead to your arrest. Your attorney may also use these letters when preparing a presentencing memorandum on your behalf.

Should I write a Personal Narrative?

Also, providing a personal narrative to your probation officer prior to the interview can be very helpful. In fact, for some judges this type of information is the single most important thing of all in making their decision about an offender’s sentence. Regardless of the “weight” a judge may give a personal narrative, it is definitely true that the more the sentencing judge knows about you as an individual, the better they can determine and provide the best possible sentence. This is especially true considering the Booker opinion that the sentencing guidelines are advisory. Consequently, because the judge is not bound by what the sentencing guidelines may say, the judge will be looking at your personal information and weighing this against what the sentencing guidelines provide.

Regarding what to write in a personal narrative, it might read something like an AA testimony.  In other words, it might contain a transparent, vulnerable, and insightful description of your background and how this led to you appearing before the judge and, details about what you have done since the commission of the criminal act to help improve yourself and your situation. The focus should be on how you have responded to the offense including any treatment or other rehabilitative services you have engaged in voluntarily.

In your personal narrative you will want to convey to the judge the reasons why, despite your background and your crime, you are nevertheless still a good candidate for rehabilitation rather than punishment. You may wish to discuss this with your lawyer prior to your interview, and possibly provide him or her with a copy of it for review and comment.

What Are the Seven Factors a Judge Must Consider at Sentencing?

Based on 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) there are 7 factors that a judge must consider when determining an appropriate sentenced for the offender. These include:

  1. The offense committed and the defendant’s history and characteristics,
  2. The four primary factors of a sentence, including deterrence, rehabilitation, punishment, protection of society.
  3. The kinds of sentences available for the offender, including ay required mandatory minimums
  4. The sentencing guidelines range
  5. Any applicable policy statements from the BOP
  6. The need to avoid disparities between your sentence and those given to like offenders
  7. The need to provide restitution to those who have been harmed by your conduct.

A United States District Court Judge will be considering all 7 of these factors when determining the appropriate sentence in your case.

How Does the Federal Bureau of Prisons Use the Presentence Report?

Correctional officers will not necessarily carefully review the PSIR line-for-line, and instead may rely on a summary review. However, the BOP will utilize much of the information continued in the PSIR in making the housing determinations as discussed in detail elsewhere on this website.

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