Presentence Investigations & Prior Convictions

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

Understanding the criminal justice system involves studying various stages of the legal process. Two critical elements of this process are presentence investigations and the impact of prior convictions on sentencing. This section delves into these complex subjects, highlighting their role in determining the final sentence for a defendant. Through analysis of pertinent Supreme Court cases, we will see how the law has evolved and how constitutional issues have influenced the sentencing process. Let’s unravel these crucial aspects of procedural law, which guide our courts every day in their quest for justice.

Understanding Presentence Investigations

The presentence investigation (PSI) plays a crucial role in the sentencing process of criminal justice. Conducted by a probation officer, the PSI occurs after a defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty. The goal is to gather comprehensive information about the defendant to guide the judge in determining an appropriate sentence. The PSI report can include the defendant’s criminal history, personal background, and any victim impact statements.

Prior Convictions and Sentencing

Past convictions of the defendant, also called prior convictions, carry significant weight in the sentencing phase. The term “prior convictions” refers to any offenses a defendant has been found guilty of before the current criminal proceedings.

These prior convictions form a key part of what’s known as the “criminal history score” in the sentencing guidelines. The criminal history score is a numerical value assigned to a defendant based on their past criminal behavior. This scoring system aims to bring consistency to sentencing by ensuring that repeat offenders receive harsher punishments. In other words, a higher criminal history score, indicating more or severe past offenses, usually leads to a lengthier sentence.

However, it’s important to understand that these guidelines are not rigid rules. The judge overseeing the case has the authority to depart from these guidelines under certain circumstances. This ability is often referred to as “judicial discretion.” It allows a judge to adjust the sentence upwards or downwards if they believe that the guidelines do not fully reflect the unique factors of the case. Such factors might include the defendant’s character, their role in the crime, or the severity of the crime.

In this way, our criminal justice system attempts to balance the need for consistency and fairness with the need for individualized justice. It recognizes that while past behavior is informative, every case, every crime, and every person is different and should be judged on their own merits.

Noteworthy Supreme Court Cases

Almendarez-Torres v. United States (1998)

In the 1998 case, Almendarez-Torres v. United States, Almendarez-Torres pleaded guilty to unlawful reentry into the U.S. The court enhanced his sentence based on prior convictions, which were not in the indictment.

The main legal issue involved the Fifth Amendment’s right to indictment by a grand jury. The Supreme Court ruled that prior convictions used for sentence enhancements do not need to be part of the indictment. The rationale was that prior convictions are a sentencing factor, not an element of the offense.

Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000)

Apprendi v. New Jersey in 2000 featured Apprendi, who fired shots at a home and received an extended sentence due to racial bias, a fact not decided by the jury.

The constitutional issue was the right to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment. The Supreme Court decided that any fact, except prior convictions, that increases the penalty beyond the statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury. The rationale was to protect the defendant’s right to a jury trial.

Shepard v. United States (2005)

In Shepard v. United States (2005), Shepard, with three prior convictions, pleaded guilty to firearm possession. The judge used police reports to conclude that the past convictions were violent felonies, enhancing the sentence.

The legal issue centered on the Sixth Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that a judge cannot use police reports to determine the nature of past convictions for sentence enhancement. The rationale was to safeguard the defendant’s right to a jury trial.


This section examined two critical elements of the legal process in the criminal justice system: presentence investigations and the impact of prior convictions on sentencing. We explored the role of the presentence investigation (PSI), conducted after a defendant is found or pleads guilty, in gathering comprehensive information about the defendant to inform sentencing. Further, we discussed how prior convictions form part of the “criminal history score” that influences sentencing, highlighting the balance between sentencing consistency and judicial discretion. The study of three Supreme Court cases—Almendarez-Torres v. United States (1998), Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000), and Shepard v. United States (2005)—showed us how the law has evolved to protect defendants’ rights while ensuring a fair sentencing process.



Almendarez-Torres v. United States, 523 U.S. 224 (1998).

Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000).

Shepard v. United States, 544 U.S. 13 (2005).


Modification History

File Created:  08/08/2018

Last Modified:  07/27/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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