what is a psi in court 1

what is a psi in court

What is a PSI Report?

Definition of a PSI Report

A PSI report, also known as a presentence investigation report, consists of paperwork that a judge can use to help determine the right way to punish a defendant in a court case. The report is conducted by a probation officer, social worker, or psychologist in the probation department. It usually involves a live interview with the defendant.

Other Names for a PSI Report

A federal PSI may also be referred to as a presentence report or PSR.

When Is a PSI Ordered?

In Misdemeanor or Gross Misdemeanor Pleas

In a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor plea, the court has the option to order a PSI, but it is not mandatory.

In Felony Pleas

However, in a felony plea, the court must order a PSI for the defendant.

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When a PSI is Not Ordered

A PSI is not ordered in every case – only those in which the judge determines punishment. For example, a PSI will not be ordered if the punishment is to be assessed by a jury or resolved through a plea bargain agreement.

Who Writes the Presentence Investigation Report?

Role of the Probation Officer

With a state and federal presentence investigation report, it’s up to a probation officer to research and write the document. This requires the officer to interview the defendant and then collaborate with other professionals involved in the case.

Interviewing the Defendant

The point is to get a good overview of the defendant’s behavior and character before the judge reads the PSI report and decides on the proper sentencing.

Collaborating with Other Professionals

The probation officer will usually conduct a one-on-one PSI interview with the defendant to inform the PSR report.

Purpose of a PSI

The overarching purpose of a PSI is to give judges the best information possible to make informed sentencing choices that balance punishment, rehabilitation, and public safety. Specifically, PSIs aim to:

  • Provide details on the defendant’s background and life circumstances that may have contributed to criminal behavior
  • Confirm the defendant’s criminal history, including uncharged conduct
  • Offer victim impact statements to understand harm caused
  • Assess flight and recidivism risk if the defendant remains free
  • Determine if alternative sentences beyond incarceration may be appropriate
  • Recommend treatment programs to reduce recidivism

Having this well-rounded view minimizes sentencing disparities and tailors consequences to each defendant’s unique situation.

Components of a PSI

PSIs are in-depth reports that can be over 20 pages chronicling all aspects of the defendant and case. While reports vary by state, common PSI components include:

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Defendant’s background

This collects personal data like:

  • Family history and dynamics
  • Marital status and dependents
  • Physical/mental health background
  • Educational attainment and cognitive abilities
  • Employment history
  • Financial situation
  • Living environment
  • Drug/alcohol dependence
  • Community ties

Gathering this information creates a fuller picture of the defendant’s life and personal factors that may have catalyzed criminal activity.

Elements of a PSI Report

Details on the Offense

The PSI and ensuing presentence report often include information about the defendant, such as the crime in question and the defendant’s involvement in the crime.

Defendant’s Criminal History

Whether the crime was a first offense and their criminal record and past crimes (if any).

Defendant’s Family History

Their social history, relationships with family and friends, and ties to the community.

Defendant’s Education

Their background, characteristics, and needs.

Defendant’s Employment Record

Defendant’s Military Service

Defendant’s Finances

Defendant’s Health

Including their substance abuse history.

Impact on the Victim

Official statements from the victim (also known as a “victim impact statement”).

Restitution Possibilities

Whether restitution to the victim or the victim’s family might be appropriate.

Additional Information

The judge may request more information as needed aside from the above details.

How Does the Judge Use a Presentence Investigation Report?

Reviewing the Report

The purpose of the PSI or PSR report is for the judge to have all the information necessary to determine the proper sentence for the defendant. For this reason, the judge will review the report before the sentencing hearing begins.

Determining an Appropriate Sentence

Then, they will use it to determine what’s best for the victim, the defendant, and society.

Is There a Presentence Investigation Drug Test?

Likelihood with Drug-Related Crimes

Since the judge can request additional information, they may order a presentence investigation drug test. It’s especially likely when the crime was a drug-related offense.

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Being Prepared for a Drug Test

Therefore, it’s best to be prepared for a drug test during the presentence investigation process, particularly if the crime involved substance abuse.

How to Obtain a PSI Report

Requesting an Opportunity for Review

While PSR reports are confidential documents that are not considered public records, a criminal defendant may request an opportunity to review their PSI report.

Restrictions on Copies for Inmates

They may not, however, have a copy of the report while in prison, as other inmates may read the report, looking for indications that the defendant cooperated with police and retaliated against the defendant.

Following the Defendant Through the System

The PSI report, once completed, will follow the defendant throughout incarceration, through appeals, and otherwise throughout their time in the criminal justice system.


Going through the criminal justice system can be confusing and intimidating. Understanding key concepts like the presentence investigation report puts you in a better position when facing criminal charges. Being informed on what a PSI is, when it’s ordered, who conducts it, what it contains, and how judges utilize it removes some of the uncertainty defendants face. While the PSI plays an important role in sentencing, working with an experienced criminal defense attorney is crucial as well. They can help defendants understand their rights, guide them through the process, and advocate for the most favorable outcome.


What is the difference between a PSI and a PSR?
There is no difference. PSI and PSR both stand for a presentence investigation report. PSI is used more commonly by state courts while PSR is used in federal cases, but they refer to the same type of report.

Who gets access to the PSI other than the judge? The prosecuting attorneys and the defense attorneys also get access to the PSI report in order to prepare for sentencing. Parts of the report may also be shared with law enforcement agencies.

Can a defendant refuse a PSI interview?
Defendants cannot refuse a presentence investigation interview if the judge has ordered one. Refusing to cooperate could negatively impact sentencing. However, defendants can choose to not answer certain questions.

Is a PSI interview recorded?
No, PSI interviews are not recorded or transcribed. The probation officer conducting the interview takes notes and includes summaries of the defendant’s statements in the written PSI report.

Can a PSI report be corrected? Yes, if a defendant believes there are factual errors in their PSI report, they can file an objection. The judge will then determine if a correction is warranted.

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