Presentence evaluations are those assessments conducted prior to the sentencing stage of proceedings to assist the court in making an appropriate disposition. Individual differences in crimes, criminals, and circumstances justify the need for personalized sentences in each case. Mental health professionals, probation officers, and social workers are among those in the forensic field called on to conduct these assessments. This entry explores the importance of presentence assessments, the content of such assessments, and standards of practice in completing high-quality assessments.
Historically, the goals of punishment were retribution, incapacitation, and general deterrence. These objectives do not require in-depth knowledge of the offender. However, with the aims of reform and rehabilitation came a need for further information regarding the offender prior to imposing a sentence. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that the sentencing decision may be the most important decision made about a defendant in the entire court process. It is now common practice for the court to order the completion of a presentence report to assist the court in making an appropriate disposition. Probation officers are frequently involved in the preparation of these reports; however, if mental health issues arise, the mental health professional may be called on to complete an assessment at this stage. The ordering of such evaluations varies in different jurisdictions, and consistent criteria do not exist. Some information suggests that judicial decisions to order assessments at this stage may be influenced by the judge’s commitment to rehabilitation or retribution.
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Specific requests made by the court will dictate the focus of these evaluations, and the content of reports will vary depending on the needs of the court as well as of practitioner called on to conduct the evaluation. The specific role of the mental health professional will be in providing information relating to culpability, which would include aggravating and mitigating factors in offending; risk assessment, such as risk management strategies; and mental status and treatability assessments, including identifying specific and appropriate treatment needs of the offender and an evaluation of the treatability of the offender. Indeed, judges have requested that the examiner inform the court why a particular recommendation is needed, what form it should take, and what impact it is likely to have on the offender.
When mental health professionals are called on to conduct an assessment of the accused at this stage of proceedings, the report is likely to follow a fairly standard format that typically includes a review of the following: (a) personal and family data, including information regarding the offender’s childhood, school, employment, relationships, substance use, and mental and physical health; (b) offense information, which moves beyond a simple recounting of events to include motivation for the offense and the defendant’s attitude toward the offense; (c) a review of criminal history, including juvenile adjudications, past response to corrections, and criminal behaviors not resulting in arrest; (d) an evaluation of the accused, which may include the results of testing as well as a current mental status assessment; (e) a risk assessment; and (f) conclusions including recommendations and risk management strategies.
There has been relatively little research on judge’s views of presentence reports. That research that has been conducted appears to have asked the question generally instead of focusing on specific reports. Although responses have been favorable in many cases, those criticisms that do exist focus on the unrealistic recommendations made and the jargon used in reports. Indeed, research suggests the need to tie the content of the report to its purpose—that is, to concentrate on issues relevant to understanding the offending behavior and considering constructive responses to it. In doing so, the examiner should also consider the seriousness of the offense, as this has been a criticism of past reports. Furthermore, reports should make use of appropriate language free from jargon, prejudicial or stereotypical language, and spelling and grammatical errors. In addition, standards of practice would require providing thorough but concise information in a logical format and presenting information from a variety of sources including, but not limited to, a file review of police records, court transcripts, and criminal record; an interview with the offender, including testing information; and interviews with collateral sources, such as family members, spouses, employers, and other relevant community contacts. Additionally, the offender may be asked to sign release forms so that records may be obtained from various community agencies with which the accused has had prior contact, including hospital and community mental health centers, substance abuse treatment programs, and community corrections.
Despite some criticism, presentence evaluations or the recommendations such assessments provide appear to play a prominent role in sentencing decisions. As such, providing reports of consistent quality is of paramount importance because failure to do so may contribute to inequality in outcomes. There is a need for further research to examine the quality of these assessments and the impact they have in sentencing offenders. Such information will assist the examiner in providing evaluations of the highest quality and help ensure that these evaluations meet the needs of the court.
- Andrews, D. A., Bonta, J. Y., & Hoge, R. D. (1990). Classification for effective rehabilitation: Rediscovering psychology. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 17, 19-52.
- Heilbrun, A. B. (1999). Recommending probation and parole. In A. K. Hess & I. B. Weiner (Eds.), The handbook of forensic psychology (2nd ed., pp. 303-326). New York: Wiley.
- Melton, G. B., Petrila, J., Poythress, N. G., & Slobogin, C. (1997). Psychological evaluations for the courts: A handbook for mental health professionals and lawyers (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
- Rogers, R., & Mitchell, C. N. (1991). Mental health experts and the criminal courts. Toronto, ON, Canada: Carswell.