VA Paper Scutinizes Secretive Federal Pre-Sentence Reports


The Roanoke Times explores the problem of inaccuracies in pre-sentence reports, part of what it described as “the murky world of federal sentencing. That includes a “private collaboration” between probation officer and sentencing judge. After federal defendants are convicted, probation officers prepare a report to help judges decide punishment. The pre-sentence report discusses the convict’s history, family, employment, ability to repay costs of the offense, and how the crime affected victims. The report includes a calculation of possible sentences under federal guidelines, based on scores for the offense and the defendant’s criminal history. This part of the pre-sentence report, while sealed from public view, is shared with the prosecution and the defense and often is vigorously debated in front of a judge in open court.

Another part of the report rarely sees the light of day in most of the nation’s 94 judicial districts. This is where the probation officer advises the judge what sentence to impose. “By local rule or by order in a case, the court may direct the probation officer not to disclose to anyone other than the court the officer’s recommendation on the sentence,” says the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which governs the operation of U.S. courts. No one who tracks how each of the nation’s federal districts deals with the rule about sentencing recommendations, according to the national office of the federal defenders service and two longtime U.S. judges in Roanoke. Most districts keep the recommendations secret, between the judge and probation officer.

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