If you are charged with a federal crime, sooner or later you will meet the U.S. probation officer. The main task of the probation officer is to prepare the presentence report. The purpose of this report is to summarize the personal background of the defendant and the facts and allegations of the case so that the court has the necessary background information to determine the appropriate sentence.
Personal history. Part of the background information is the offender’s personal history, lifestyle characteristics, medical condition, education, employment situation, special skillset, substance abuse issues, and present condition. An integral part of this information is a defendant’s personal and family data, which addresses the defendant’s life so far, his personality and his behavior. Family members are identified and often interviewed to establish the defendant’s interactions, relationships, and social integration. Often the trained probation officers are able to draw a line between a defendant’s childhood and adolescent experiences to the present case.
Health issues. Besides the defendant’s personality, the probation officer examines the defendant’s physical condition and his mental and emotional health. Past and present health issues, including any prescription needs, help the Bureau of Prisons to assess job assignments, possible psychological and psychiatric needs, and the need for special treatment institutional classification. This will also assess whether the defendant, for example, presents a threat to himself or others.
Substance abuse. The presentence report will explore whether the defendant has a history of alcohol or drug abuse. The defendant will probably be required to undergo periodic urine analysis to test for the presence of drugs in his system. Notably, prisoners that are convicted of a non-violent crime may qualify for a reduction of their confinement if the defendant successfully completes a substance abuse program during incarceration.
Education and skills. The defendant’s educational and professional background is also of interest. In this section of the report, the probation officer will determine what languages the defendant speaks and the amount of schooling he has. The defendant’s ability to pay restitution or a fine may also be relevant.
Employment. In the employment section of the presentence report, the probation officer lists the defendant’s employment record, the job descriptions, salary, and termination reasons. The officer will inform the judge if the defendant was full or part-time employed, unemployed, unable to work, studying, retired, or a homemaker at the time the offense was committed and at the time of sentencing.
Financial Situation. All assets and “any resources” available to the defendant need to be listed that are in defendant’s control. 18 U.S.C. Sect 3664(d)(3). In this context, control includes assets that the defendant may not technically own, but that contribute to the defendant’s ability to maintain a certain lifestyle. The Mandatory Victims Restitution Act of 1996 requires restitution for certain offenses. To avoid hiding of assets, the probation officer will inquire about all assets the defendant may agree to voluntarily liquidate to pay criminal monetary penalties. In the analysis subsection, the probation officer will determine the defendant’s maximum fine or the amount of restitution that defendant is able to pay.
All of this information helps the court to better understand the defendant, his motives, and ultimately determine the appropriate punishment and facility. For example, if the sentencing report shows that defendant is mentally ill or drug addicted, the court will likely choose a prison that is capable of addressing these issues.