Date of Degree
Alexander B. Smith
Criminology and Criminal Justice
This study examines the presentence function of probation from an historical and empirical perspective which argues that the purported diminution of the role of the presentence report (PSR) in the sentencing process–as a result of sentence bargaining–is more reflective of a prevailing disenchantment with the rehabilitative ideal than any thoroughly considered, reliable validation of the PSR's dispensibility. It is demonstrated, through a review of the literature, that poorly conceived, polemically biased empirical research has helped to perpetuate the notion that these reports have little value. A survey of studies and inquiries conducted in New York over the past twenty years highlights this argument.
PSRs, formerly considered an "enlightened" fulcrum for the ameliorating correctional and sentencing reforms of the Progressive era, eventually were linked to the potential and/or actual abuses of indeterminate sentencing schemes by civil libertarians (concerned with sentencing disparity) and anti-positivist criminologists (critical of rehabilitation-directed correctional theory and practice). Such arguments, absent any sustained or substantive rebuttal from the probation community, bolstered executive branch efforts to scapegoat the judiciary and gain more control over an instrument potentially regulative of jail/prison intake during an era of chronic overcrowding and attendant federal court intervention.
The author's own study of a random sample of PSRs from Kings County Supreme Court in New York City finds considerable evidence for the proposition that PSRs account for a significant proportion of the observed variance between sentence promised and sentence imposed. Path analysis finds that the custodial status has the most effect on the plea bargain and the recommendation of the probation officer, but the latter is the single most important predictor of the eventual disposition. Further analysis suggests that PSRs containing the most relevant information are more likely to result in amendments of the sentence bargain, while perfunctory reports are most likely merely to endorse the sentence already promised.
An examination of reaction to a recent attempt to eviscerate the PSR's content in New York lends further support to this study's hypothesis that presentence reports have much more utility in the criminal justice system than the revisionist literature suggests.
Enright, Joseph G., "The Impact of Presentence Investigations on Plea Bargained Dispositions in Kings County Supreme Court" (1987). CUNY Academic Works.