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Assisting and Advising the Sentencing Decision Process: The Pursuit of 'Quality' in Pre-Sentence Reports

NCJ Number
British Journal of Criminology Volume: 48 Issue: 6 Dated: November 2008 Pages: 835-855
Cyrus Tata; Nicola Burns; Simon Halliday; Neil Hutton; Fergus McNeill
Date Published
November 2008
21 pages
This article summarizes some of the main findings of a 4-year qualitative study in Scotland that examined how presentence reports (Social Enquiry Reports) were constructed by their writers (social workers), what the writers intended to convey to the sentencing judge (sheriff), and how these reports were then interpreted and used by sheriffs in their sentencing decisions.
The study data confirm previous findings that most SER writers attempt to ascertain the sentencing practices of sheriffs in their local area and anticipate the range of “realistic” sentencing options that would be considered by a given sheriff. Sheriffs and defense attorneys expected report writers to be familiar with sentencing patterns in their particular court and to write reports accordingly. This perspective is problematic, however, because report writers were generally unable to predict which sheriff would hear their case and thus read their report. Report writers attempted to encourage sentencers to consider and favor particular dispositions in the case at issue. This was done through the use of “narrative” about the offender that situated the offense within the individual’s social background and environment. Other issues discussed in the report included prospects for modifying the offender’s criminal behavior, with attention to the offender’s attitude and various factors that may favor behavioral change. There were five limitations on SER’s ability to influence sentencing decisions. First, SERs were usually read by sheriffs after examining other formal documents related to sentencing. Second, sheriffs generally viewed only the criminal-history sections of the SER. Third, in many cases reports were edited by attorneys before reaching the sheriff. Fourth, sheriffs tended to view report writers as being too ready to believe what offenders tell them about themselves. Fifth, sheriffs were generally negative toward reports that recommended a specific sentence. They preferred neutral, factual reports. 65 references