PRESENTENCE INVESTIGATION UNIT
A defendant’s first contact with the U.S. Probation Department occurs after he or she enters a plea of guilty to a federal offense or is convicted by trial. Soon after one of these events, the defendant will meet with a probation officer assigned to the Presentence Investigation Unit, who will interview the defendant in preparation of completing a presentence report. During this interview, the probation officer will inquire about such things as the defendant’s family history, community ties, educational 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). Whenever possible, the officer will also conduct a visit to the defendant’s residence, to assess the defendant’s living conditions, interview family members, and detect evidence of drug use or the presence of weapons in the home. Following the interview, the officer engages in a period of active investigation, during which the officer attempts to both verify the information provided by the defendant and uncover any additional information that may assist the court in fashioning an appropriate sentence.
In addition to interviewing the defendant, a probation officer, during the course of a presentence investigation, 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 and associates. The officer will also review numerous documents, which may include, among other things, court dockets, indictments, plea agreements, trial transcripts, investigative reports from other law enforcement agencies, criminal history transcripts, previous probation and parole records, U.S. Pretrial Services Agency reports, vital statistics records, medical records, counseling and substance abuse treatment records, scholastic records, employment records, and financial records. 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 equally important aspect of the preparation of a presentence report, is the probation officer’s investigation into the offense of conviction, the defendant’s involvement in 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 Unites States Sentencing Guidelines. Although practices differ among the various districts, a probation officer assigned to the Presentence Investigation Unit in the Eastern District of New York must, at the conclusion of a presentence investigation, work with his or 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 in chambers or in court, 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.
Probation officers assigned to the Presentence Investigation Unit play an integral role in the federal sentencing process. As described above, these officers author the presentence reports which help the Court fashion appropriate and fair sentences. After sentencing, these presentence reports are utilized by the Bureau of Prisons to choose the institutions where offenders will serve their sentences, to select prison programs to help the offenders, and to make the offenders’ release plans. Copies of the presentence reports are also forwarded to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which uses the reports to monitor the application of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. Lastly, presentence reports assist probation officers assigned to the Supervision Unit, by providing these officers with information which can be used to assess risks posed by, and the needs of, offenders under supervision.
Probation officers assigned to the Supervision Unit are responsible for the supervision and monitoring of all offenders who have been conditionally released to the community by the federal courts on probation or supervised release. These officers also supervise military parolees and offenders released by the U.S. Parole Commission on parole, special parole, or mandatory release. At the outset of an offender’s period of community supervision, an officer from the Supervision Unit will fully explain to an offender the conditions or his or her release. These conditions may include mandatory conditions of release, which are imposed by the Court and apply to every offender, and discretionary conditions, which are imposed by the Court to provide probation officers with the authority to address risk related issues specific to a particular case. Discretionary conditions may include, among other things, home detention, substance abuse testing or treatment, mental health treatment, and the disclosure of financial information.
Whether acting as officers of the federal courts or agents of the U.S. Parole Commission, the objectives of probation officers assigned to the Probation Department’s Supervision Unit remain the same: to carry out the Court’s sentence, to protect the public through proactive risk control supervision, to address offender rehabilitation goals, and to deter any further criminal behavior of the offenders. Officers utilize a combination of controlling and correctional strategies to manage the risks related to particular offenders, and to maximize the offenders’ potential for success during the period of supervision and beyond.
The process of supervising an offender begins with a probation officer evaluating the offender, identifying potential supervision problems, and making a supervision plan. From the beginning, and throughout the period of supervision, the officer will assess and reassess the potential risk that an offender poses to the community and will adjust his or her personal contact with the offender accordingly. The supervision plan developed by the officer will address any obstacles that may impede an offender’s ability or desire to complete supervision successfully and will provide for any services, such as substance abuse or mental health treatment, that the offender may require.
In supervising offenders, probation officers are ever-mindful of their public safety responsibilities. To reduce the risks to the public, and to increase the likelihood that offenders will adopt a law-aiding lifestyle, officers use risk control techniques designed to detect and deter criminal behavior. Such techniques include verifying offenders’ employment and income sources, monitoring their associates, restricting their travel, and requiring offenders to undergo correctional treatment. This correctional treatment may include a combination of services, to include drug and alcohol treatment, educational or vocational training, medical care, and employment assistance. Offenders who do not comply with the conditions of their supervision face sanctions ranging from reprimand to revocation proceedings. The most serious violations include violations for new criminal conduct, violations that compromise public safety, and absconding from supervision. When an offender fails to abide by the conditions of his or her supervision, the offender may be brought back to the Court where a determination will be made whether additional conditions need to be put in place, or whether removing the offender from the community and returning the offender to incarceration is warranted.
Probation officers assigned to the Supervision Unit must possess many of the same investigative skills as officers assigned to the Presentence Unit, but they must be especially adept at assessing the risks presented by offenders and developing supervision plans on a case-by-case basis. These officers must also be skilled at counseling and motivating offenders, and they must have the ability to choose appropriate actions to respond to noncompliant behavior.