Prisonology interviews Jack Donson, Bureau of Prisons Case Manager - Retired, on what happens during this investigation and the importance of gathering information for it.
The federal judge in a criminal case will order a Presentence investigation conducted and subsequent report to be issued prior to sentencing. The investigation on the defendant goes into most every aspect of a person's life including personal relationships, home life, childhood, medical issues and financial status. It can be an exhaustive process but by setting some expectations and a little planning, defendants can use this as an opportunity to put a more personal story in front of the judge to consider at sentencing.
Complete all documents (forms) provided by U.S. Probation prior to the in-person interview. If possible, have your attorney send them on to probation prior to the interview.
Get as much backup information as you can, particularly your education information and medical information. This prevents U.S. Probation from sending “Release Forms” for information to banks, physicians, academic institutions, etc.
If you have a drug or alcohol addiction that you would like to bring to the attention of the investigator, then document it accurately in the Pre-Sentence documentation request and answer honestly during the interview process.
Go over your financial information with your attorney prior to submitting it to Probation, making sure you are thorough and accurate in your submission.
Know that probation is going to ask you for family and friend contacts to interview, so have a list ready of possible candidates for them to contact.
Be prepared to submit a urinalysis as part of the interview. Do NOT take any drugs prior to the test for the intention of failing the test to assure acceptance into the RDAP program. You will do more harm to your case by doing so.
If you mess something up during the interview (incorrect answer or something you thought about further after the interview) immediately contact your attorney to have her get that information to the Probation Officer.
Have prepared a statement for “Acceptance of Responsibility” question in both the document question package and for the in-person question.
Be professional at all times during the interview and also be forthcoming
You are your best advocate and this interview is being conducted to provide the sentencing judge your best characteristics. Honesty and transparency are very important.
Nobody is looking to do extra work, including probation officers. You can assist in ‘writing the report’ for them by providing information that you want in the report.
Be prepared to explain inconsistencies from your pre-trial file. For instance, when arrested, many people withhold drug abuse history because they think it will hurt them for bail purposes and don’t want to undergo treatment while on pre-trial detention. It’s okay for there to be inconsistencies as long as you can provide a logical reason for the discrepancies.
K.W. (Inmate) Presentence Investigation
"This was a very tricky process. My best advice when going into this interview is to be COMPLETELY HONEST. Especially when talking about the use of drugs and alcohol. If you don't admit that you have a dependency problem it will be VERY hard for you to qualify for the RDAP program and get your year off plus an extra 6 months halfway house later on. Some people go into this interview trying to make themselves look better to the judge which can be catastrophic. The only thing I advise is to be completely honest. The judge isn't going to give you extra time for being an addict. Make sure you view any information that you have about your case before you go and also write down questions or concerns. The person doing the interview will be VERY thorough and want to make sure they have everything correct. This part is extremely important when determining your future and how much time you will end up doing. Again...BE HONEST!!"
G.B. (Inmate) Presentence Investigation
"My lawyer came with me to the pre-sentence investigation. I had already pleaded guilty and had talked to a number of people (ex-inmates included) about my PSI. The overriding issue that everyone brought up was to be clear about all my drug and alcohol issues. I didn't hide them from the interviewer. If my pre-sentence report shows that I had a major drug or alcohol issue within the year of my charges, I could be eligible for a drug program in prison which could give me a year off my sentence. There is no other way (at this time) to get time off my sentence (other than Good Time).
There were a number of forms to fill out prior to the interview (similar to the forms I filled out after I pleaded guilty). They asked about family history, doctors, therapists, jobs, drug/alcohol use, etc. After the interview I emailed the pre-sentence officer other documents such as my birth certificate, high school diploma, college diploma."
J.L. (Inmate) Presentence Investigation
"I had my lawyer there. One must answer truthfully to all questions. I found that the when the report came back, it had a “tilt” toward the prosecution ... my lawyer felt the same. I had read about what to expect from the interview on line, I got some information this way. Getting truthful, historical information regarding drinking or drug use into the PSR is SO IMPORTANT for RDAP qualifications. A person must be prepared for this. I brought in additional forms, certificates, employment verification, anything that could substantiate and back up what I was saying in the my interview. For example, I brought in all my offer (job) letters from COMPANY XYZ (omitted) and ABC Company (omitted) to provide evidence that I worked in these places. Being prepared and making things easy for the probation officer conducting the interview is very important."
Former U.S. Probation Officer Sara Rizor-Black Presentence Investigation
"One of the main mitigation strategies I believe in is developing an approach where the defendant collaborates with (versus battles) the probation officer. We are frequently bullied and sometimes deluged with often frivolous objections. There is a lot of strategy to dealing with the probation office - such as when and how to object to things.
Additionally, advance preparation for the presentence interview is vital, and maintaining a neutral tone in the interview. Probation officers are very sensitive to people not truly taking responsibility for the crimes they have pled to or been found guilty of - and it is never a good idea to paint a portrait of yourself as the victim (even such things as how this will affect your family - given that the presumption is that you had a family when you committed the crime). However, in balance, it is important to point the presentence writer in the direction of any compelling information, which may have influenced decisions and/or judgments. All of this should be vetted with the attorney.
Usually, the Probation Form 1 (a national form used for the interview), release forms, and financial forms are available on each probation office's website. These forms guide the interview, so a defendant may review the questions prior to the interview - and perhaps practice answering them. Having the questions up front ahead of time should help with anxiety.
It is always nice when the defendant arrives to the interview with the forms completed ahead of time, or if the attorney can submit them prior to the interview, the probation officer has the opportunity to review the information prior to meeting with the person. Especially with traumatic and/or medical information, it can be helpful to be forewarned of sensitive topics. For example, if I see that someone has suffered from a serious illness or lost a child or other close family member - or even lost multiple friends to street violence- it is always good to get that information.
For any defendant, no matter how egregious their crime, there are elements of their life which evoke feelings of sympathy. It is a fine balance to present the elements without offering them up directly as an excuse. The presentence report is specifically designed to provide information about what got the person in trouble (and the associated potential penalties), but it is also the opportunity to allow the Judge to get to know the person and fashion a unique sentence for that individual.
In order to limit how many release forms are sent out to the world (sometimes enhancing embarrassment), a defendant should be prepared to verify as much information themselves, which would include birth and marriage licenses/divorce decrees, educational achievements, vocational skills, employment, substance and/or mental health treatment, prior community service, etc.
In white collar matters, it never hurts to come to the interview with a nice folder and/or copies of all the requested information, such as bank statements, brokerage account statements, paycheck stubs, verification of living expenses, mortgages/leases, vehicle titles, etc. In many white collar cases, the probation officer barely understands what the crime actually consisted of (Not many probation officers trade in derivatives, for example). Sadly, most have very little financial training/background, as there are far more drug related cases. In my experience, most probation officers dread financial cases. If you show up with neatly organized and complete packets, it puts them at ease and feeling less overwhelmed, thereby resulting in a more open and receptive evaluator.
Finally, the presentence report is also used by the supervision officer when the defendant is on probation and/or in prison. The level of supervision is partly determined by the presentence report. Information is also gleaned for any subsequent treatment providers.
Additionally, one-page letters directed to the Judge (vetted by the attorneys) from family and especially friends and/or prior co-workers and/or community contacts, can have a significant influence on Judges."
D.B. (Female Inmate) Presentence Investigation
This was very confusing to me because I was never told by my attorney how important it was to the BOP. I answered all of the questions but didn't elaborate on things especially medical. Some things I gave were just an overview without detail, not realizing the impact those answers had on my PSR. One thing that stands out was how important it was for me to be near by autistic son. While I said I wanted to be near my son, I did not go into details about his medical issues. I think that hurt me in my designation and I was sent over 2,000 miles from home because the one closer to my house was overcrowded. I know I should have pushed that more.