United States Probation Office
Western District of Kentucky

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Roles of United States Probation Officer

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“Making a Difference”
Presentence Investigation
The presentence report is a key document submitted to the court describing the nature and circumstances of the offense, the history and characteristics of the offender, the application of federal sentencing guidelines and available sentencing options. Officers who prepare presentence reports must be especially skilled at gathering, organizing, and analyzing information.

In the report and accompanying sentencing recommendation, the probation officer must assess the probability of risk to the community in the form of future criminal behavior, the harm the offense caused and the need for restitution, any profit the offender may have received from the crime, and the defendant’s ability to pay sanctions such as a fine, restitution, or costs.

The report is used immediately to help the court determine an appropriate sentence and also serves several other purposes. Since the advent of the sentencing guidelines, the importance of the presentence report has increased because the document is now designed to frame factual and legal issues for sentencing. Thereafter, if a defendant is incarcerated, the Bureau of Prisons will use information in the report to designate the institution where the offender will serve the sentence and to determine the offender’s eligibility or need for specific correctional programs. The probation officer assigned responsibility for the offender’s case during probation and supervised release will use the report to make an initial assessment of case needs and risks. Additionally, the report may be used as a source of information for future research.

When a defendant is referred for a presentence investigation, the officer must immediately begin to gather the facts. Though the procedure varies somewhat from district to district, the officer usually conducts several aspects of the investigation concurrently to ensure that the presentence report is submitted to the court on time. Since officers routinely conduct multiple presentence investigations simultaneously, meeting the deadlines can be difficult.

During any investigation a probation officer may review numerous documents including: court dockets, plea agreements, investigative reports from numerous agencies, previous probation or parole records, pretrial services records, criminal history transcripts, vital statistics records, medical records, counseling and substance abuse treatment records, scholastic records, employment records, financial records, and others. The probation officer must scrutinize each document received and determine the likely accuracy of the record.

The officer then discloses the final report and recommendation to the court, the defendant, and both attorneys, but the job is still not finished. The probation officer must be prepared to discuss the case with the sentencing judge in chambers or in court, to answer questions about the report that arise during the sentencing hearing, and ultimately, to testify in court as to the basis for the factual findings and guideline applications recommended in the report.

After sentencing, the probation officer must ensure that copies of the presentence report and other required documents are forwarded to the Bureau of Prisons and the United States Sentencing Commission or the United States Parole Commission in pre-guideline cases. If possible, the probation officer must also interview the offender immediately after sentencing and instruct the defendant about the conditions of supervision that the court imposed. A written copy of the conditions of supervision must be provided to each offender.

Of equal importance with presentence investigation, the probation officer’s other major responsibility is the supervision of federal offenders released conditionally in the community. Probation officers supervise offenders on probation and supervised release whose conditions of release are set by the sentencing courts.

Probation officers also supervise military parolees and persons released by the United States Parole Commission on parole, special parole, or mandatory release. Though parole was abolished in 1984, defendants sentenced for military offenses and for criminal conduct that occurred before that abolition will be released from prison under the supervision of the probation officer well into the next century. In contrast to persons on probation and supervised release who are under the jurisdiction of the sentencing court, individuals released on parole and mandatory release remain in the legal custody of the Attorney General while serving a portion of their sentence of imprisonment in the community.

Whether acting as officers of the court or agents of the Parole Commission or military authorities, the supervision mission of the United States probation officer is to execute the sentence, control risk, and promote law-abiding behavior through correctional treatment. Probation officers assigned to supervision caseloads must have all of the skills described earlier but must be especially adept at assessing the risks presented by each case and reducing those risks. The officers must also have skill at counseling and motivating offenders and must choose appropriate means to respond to noncompliant behavior. Finally, the officers must have the ability to discern deception and act accordingly.

Throughout supervision, all contacts are purposeful and designed to enforce conditions, control risk, or provide correctional treatment. The case plan will determine the persons to be contacted and the frequency, place, and nature of the contacts. Field contacts with the offender and others are vital to ensure that the officer is aware of the offender’s conduct and condition, but officers must be sensitive to potentially dangerous situations while conducting field supervision. Some officers now work with another officer as a partner, allowing the officer to focus on the supervision contact while the partner focuses on the pair’s safety.
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Officer in the field conducting home inspections.

When an offender fails to comply with the conditions of supervision, the probation officer attempts to determine if the noncompliance is willful or involuntary and plans an appropriate response. Responses must be timely, realistic, and progressive. If the noncompliance is involuntary, such as failure to pay a fine due to an inability to pay, the response may be a modification of the case plan, a request for a modification of the conditions of supervision substituting a feasible sanction for one which is no longer feasible, or some other nonpunitive action.