top of page

Defense-Based Presentence Investigations

Defense-Based Presentence reports, historically, was solely the role of the probation officer. However, PSIs produced by probation department’s have long been criticized for being routinzed and biased against the defendant. This issue was compounded by the failure of defense attorneys to properly prepare their clients for the probation interview and for failing to adequately plan for the sentencing hearing.


In the 1960’s a new era in the history of the PSI emerged with the pioneering efforts of Dr. Thomas Gitchoff, a professor of criminal justice at San Diego State University. To improve the quality of defense representation at the sentencing hearing, Dr. Gitchoff introduced the privately commissioned PSI. Gitchoff’s reports, known as the Criminological Case Evaluation and Sentencing Recommendation, provided a comprehensive analysis of the offender’s background and motivations that exceeded the typical PSI generated by probation departments. At the time Gitchoff was introducing his methods to California courts, the Offender Rehabilitation Project of the Legal Aid Agency for the District of Columbia also began offering defense-based PSIs to indigent clients. This program is considered the oldest ongoing defense-based PSI program in the country.


The use of privately commissioned defense-based PSIs swelled in the late 1970’s and 1980s as a result of efforts by correctional reformer Jerome Miller and the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA). Miller recognized the potential of the PSI while commissioner of youth corrections in Pennsylvania, where he used individualized disposition recommendations to remove 400 youths from the Pennsylvania’s notorious Camp Hill Prison. Through his "Client Specific Planning" (CSP) model, Miller promoted the use of defense-based PSIs to public defender offices and nonprofit legal aid and offenderadvocacy groups around the country. Criticism of the defense-based PSI are centered on the belief that it is primarily available to only those defendant’s with financial resources. However, in recent years nonprofit agencies such as the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice have emphasized court-appointed or public defender cases with sliding scale rates. In addiion, the Washington DC-based Sentencing Project has made the promotion of defense-based PSI reports a integral part of its efforts to improve the quality of defense representation.


The increasing role of defense-based PSIs, a number of law schools, led by the University of Minnesota, are integrating sentencing advocacy into their curriculums. The potential for defense-based PSIs to reduce prison commitments within a jurisdiction was demonstrated in San Francisco’s juvenile justice system during the 1980s and 1990s. With the hiring of two social workers to prepare PSIs by the juvenile division of the public defender’s office, and the introduction of defense-based PSI’s to court-appointed attorneys by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice staff, the county registered a 73% reduction in commitments to state juvenile correctional institutions. With the growing acknowledgment for improved defense attorney representation in the sentencing process, it is likely that the use of private defense-based sentencing reports will continue to expand. 


*Center for Juvenile & Criminal Justice.Retrieved from

bottom of page