What Does PSI Mean in Court?

By Beverly Bird - Updated June 07, 2017
Judge signing PSI report

Most states have sentencing guidelines – specific frameworks within which the court must order punishment – that determine exactly what happens after you’re found guilty of committing a crime. Presentencing investigations, sometimes called PSIs, are often a component of these guidelines, particularly when the crime is a felony. In some states, PSIs aren’t statutorily required for misdemeanor sentencing but judges have the option of ordering them for guidance.

What Goes Into a PSI

Probation officers typically conduct presentencing investigations, and in some states, such as Pennsylvania, the defendant is responsible for reaching out to the probation department to arrange for one. The investigation involves an in-depth look into the defendant’s life. The officer collects information regarding his past and present, including his family relationships, work history and social contacts. He assesses the defendant’s prior criminal record, if any, as well as the circumstances surrounding the crime he’s currently charged with. A physical or psychological evaluation may be ordered, including drug or alcohol testing. When the investigation is complete, the officer prepares a report for the court that includes a recommendation for sentencing based on what he’s learned.

Victims’ Input

A victim impact statement may also be a component of a PSI. In Michigan, Ohio and New York, the victim can offer information regarding how the crime affected her quality of life, and Michigan law additionally allows her to make suggestions for sentencing. The probation officer isn’t obligated to recommend the suggestion to the court, but he can take it into consideration.

Who Has Access

A PSI report is not a matter of public record and, in fact, some states almost hold it under lock and key. In Pennsylvania, not even the defendant may see the report, although if he’s represented by an attorney, his attorney can read it – he just can’t photocopy it. Other states, such as Ohio, allow both the defendant and his lawyer to see it, but certain information may be redacted or obscured, such as the sentencing recommendation or results of lab tests. The prosecutor also typically gets to review the report, minus any information that’s been redacted.

How Much Weight It Carries

A PSI report usually has a significant impact on a judge’s sentencing decision. In Pennsylvania, the court follows the report’s recommendation about half the time, although you or your attorney can argue against this, presenting testimony and evidence if you feel some aspect of the report is inaccurate. The probation officer doesn’t have free rein to recommend punishment as he sees fit – he must work within his state’s sentencing guidelines. If the maximum sentence for a crime is 10 years, he can’t recommend that a defendant serve 15. Likewise, if the minimum sentence is five years, he can’t recommend that a defendant only serve three.

About the Author

Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.

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