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Secret document plays big role in criminal court


Jontae Pegeese was 18 when he and three others pushed their way into a Janesville home.

The masked men pointed pistols and ordered family members out of their beds. They demanded money.

The maximum penalty for armed robbery is 40 years. Another of the home invaders got 21½ years in prison.

Pegeese could have spent his young adulthood behind bars. Instead, Judge James Daley sentenced him to six years in prison and 10 years extended supervision.

Subtract 600 days credit for time already spent in jail and add the possibility of early release if he is successful in a prison rehabilitation program, and Pegeese might still be in his mid 20s when released.

Pegeese was the one who displayed kindness to the terror-stricken family members, but he also scored points with the judge because of his presentence investigation.

The PSI, as it is called, is an in-depth report about a defendant that judges often order from the state probation and parole office.

It’s a piece of the criminal justice system that’s little known, in part because the law does not allow the public to see the reports.

The judge, the attorneys involved in the case and the state probation/parole agents who write them know what they contain.

The defendant can read the PSI but even he can’t receive a copy.

The secrecy is to keep sensitive, private information from the public.

However, judges and attorneys often cite such sensitive information at sentencing hearings. Anyone in the courtroom can hear it.

The facts that a defendant was sexually abused as a child or had an alcoholic parent are often disclosed in open court.

These facts can be crucial to judges, who need to explain how they make their decisions.

The PSI is “the single most important document that influences correctional decision-making in Wisconsin,” a judge wrote in a 2013 Wisconsin case, State v. Melton.


PSIs go back about a century. They grew out of reformists’ ideas in the 1800s that led to the “medical model” of criminal corrections.

The medical model was based on the belief that crime can be diagnosed and treated like a disease. Judges just need to understand the “disease” to prescribe treatment.

“By the 1930s, one of the primary tasks of probation officers throughout the country was the preparation of the presentence investigation report,” according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

To this day, Wisconsin law requires judges to devise sentences that could lead to rehabilitation.

Daley, who was Rock County district attorney in the 1980s, remembers when PSIs were prepared for misdemeanor cases. Now, they are only for felonies, and judges decide whether they will be written or not. They nearly always order them in the most serious cases.

Scales of justice

A PSI is an attempt at telling the full story of a person’s life.

“So it provides, for the defendant in front of us, the good, the bad and the ugly in their lives,” Daley said.

When judges pass sentence, they explain their decisions, often seeming to weigh each fact.

Daley said Pegeese’s PSI made a difference.

It told of a youth who grew up in tough circumstances, without a father, who nevertheless excelled at Craig High School, competed as an athlete, stayed out of trouble until the home invasion and earned his diploma while in jail.

“He overcame some stuff,” Daley said in recent interview. “It’s one of those things you don’t see in this business, to come from that, and yet, the kid obviously had the ability to accomplish things and to succeed.”

On the federal level, PSIs are called presentence reports, or PSRs.

“The PSR is particularly important when there is a guilty plea because there has been no trial; thus, the PSR serves as the main source of information about the defendant,” according to a 2004 article in the St. John’s Law Review.

This is especially important because trials, where a judge can learn much about a defendant, are rare. The vast majority of cases in virtually every jurisdiction are settled with plea agreements.

That’s particularly true in Rock County. The Gazette reported in 2015 that Rock County was below the state average in trials per criminal case.

Writing A PSI

Most people know probation and parole agents oversee convicted criminals whose sentences require supervision in the community.

Most people don’t know these agents work as investigators, preparing presentence reports.

Julie Hasenstab is an experienced Janesville-based agent who writes many PSIs.

She may interview employers, family members, teachers, friends and the accused, as well as victims. She assembles a criminal history and has access to confidential information from the district attorney’s office, including police reports, and confidential files in her office if the accused has been supervised before.

School, military and juvenile records also are included, as are mental health records when relevant.

The state Department of Corrections prepared a fictional PSI for The Gazette. The crime was selling $50 worth of Oxycontin. That PSI is 25 pages long.

Hasenstab said she has defendants fill out questionnaires and might interview them more than once.

Defendants can refuse to meet with her, but that can count against them in court.

Whether defendants takes responsibility for their crimes when talking to the agent is often a big issue at sentencing hearings. Judges usually focus on this point, and the defense and prosecution will argue about how sincere the defendant is when admitting guilt or making an apology.

A defendant risks a longer sentence if he blames others for what happened.

Many hours go into a PSI. Hasenstab said she spends more time on particularly serious crimes.

Statewide, agents prepared 3,034 PSIs in the one-year period starting Dec. 14, 2016. No county-by county numbers could be generated because agents in one county often write PSIs for another county.

Jim Neitzel, a corrections field supervisor and Habenstab’s boss, said PSI writing often goes to agents who write well, but all agents write them. All are trained to do so, and experienced agents mentor new ones.

Neitzel reviews PSIs his agents write, acting as an editor.

The PSI ends with recommendations for prison or probation time and for treatment, such as counseling for drug or mental health problems.

A PSI recommendation often includes a range of years in prison or probation, plus restrictions on the defendant such as abstinence from drugs or alcohol, no contact with victims and treatment during supervision.

Is DOC impartial?

Daley reads the PSIs, but he ignores the recommendations.

Daley said local corrections agents are well trained and hard working, but: “I want to deal with the person as an individual without getting the DOC’s goals mixed up with what my job is.”

Some critics say the Department of Corrections wants shorter sentences to keep a lid on its massive prison expenses, but others say the department is motivated to want longer sentences, said Clare Lopez-Kaley, a department spokeswoman.

“At the end of the day, we’re here to protect the public, so I don’t think we would make any recommendation that would put the public at risk,” Lopez-Kaley said.

Troy Enger, assistant chief for the corrections region that includes Dane, Green and Rock counties, said the Department of Corrections does not issue guidelines for length of sentences.

“We are neutral, impartial,” when writing PSIs, Enger said.

Hasenstab said, theoretically, two agents might make different recommendations in the same case, but Neitzel said it’s unfair to compare two cases because each is unique.

“It has a lot to do with professional judgment,” Neitzel said. “I read every document from start to finish to help make that recommendation.”

Psychological testing

Agents don’t rely solely on their own judgment. They administer a psychological test that produces estimates of how likely the defendant is to return to crime.

Wisconsin uses a test called Correctional Offender Management & Profiling for Alternative Sanctions, or COMPAS.

The department’s fictional PSI provided to The Gazette shows 23 “risk scores,” predicting things such as the likelihood of financial problems, associating with other criminals and the presence of criminal thinking.

The report also warns that COMPAS scores should not be the only factors in setting a sentence.

The fictional report states at one point: “The Criminal Associates and Peers Scale score indicates Mr. Clyde Barrow is more than likely to continue involvement with anti-social friends. ... (He) should be encouraged to have more affiliations with pro-social peers ... Attitudes about peer relationships may be a useful focus of cognitive treatment.”

In big cases, the defense might hire someone to write an alternative PSI, using much of the same information but doing independent investigation. The judge must weigh this evidence, as well, but ultimately must decide which version is truest.

PSIs go to prison

Presentence investigations help judges set sentences, but probation/parole agents use them to determine whether clients must get drug counseling, anger management classes or other treatment.

And prison authorities review PSIs to determine what programming an inmate might get.

And if a convict gets out and commits another felony, the old PSI is available to help write a new one.

Daley said no matter how awful the crime, he tries to give the defendant hope.

The PSI could help him find it.

“Rarely have I seen people who are only bad,” Daley said. “I’ve seen some very bad people, but even they had some good things in their lives. ... They’re human beings. They should be treated like human beings, and they must have their dignity when they leave that courtroom.”

top story
Parkview's first show choir competition was stressful, yet easy, director says


Thursday and Friday were the most stressful and easiest days of Alyssa Case’s life.

Case explained the paradox of her final few days before directing Parkview High School’s first home show choir competition.

Crowds of people Saturday descended upon the village of only 1,500 for Parkview’s Xtravaganza—and once inside the gymnasium-turned-performance-area, they made their presence known.

Ten teams from eight schools along with their supporters packed into Parkview High School for the event that ran almost all day Saturday.

Per custom, Parkview’s show choir team, Pizazz, performed as hosts but were not judged as part of the competition.

And Case—a 2011 Parkview graduate, former Pizazz member, volunteer and assistant director who ran the school’s first show in her first year as director—could be seen buzzing around the hallways, radio in ear.

Who forgot the tape?

“We need duct tape,” one Pizazz assistant yelled down the hallway.

“Do you have any duct tape anywhere?” she asked. “Otherwise, they’re just going to have to do without.”

Show choir participants put pieces of duct tape on the bottom of their shoes to get rid of some traction while they’re on stage—so they don’t slip and fall.

‘Don’t Stop Believin’’

While the teams were getting ready, the audience filed into the dim, nearly full gym.

Many of the seats were occupied by other show choir teams. It’s different from other competitions in that show choir teams often cheer (quite loudly) for other teams.

But how did groups of show choir students fill the dead time between shows?

They sang, and they danced—because of course.

Even as an emcee announced a slight delay, students filling the bleachers sang along to Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” and, lastly, with cellphone lights waving in the air—“Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey.

A president and a parent

It was special for Clay Hammes to see Saturday’s Xtravaganza for two reasons, he said.

As the Parkview School Board president, he said he was “very proud” of the school for hosting such an event because three years ago the district narrowly approved a referendum to build the facility.

And second, Hammes volunteered for and watched the competition as the father of two Parkview show choir participants.

“Before my oldest daughter got involved, I didn’t know much of anything about show choir,” he said. “It’s fun to see the kids’ hard work pay off … it’s a lot of fun to watch.”

Angela Major 

Milton Choralation member Neil Garcia, right, dances during a performance Saturday, January 6, 2018, at Parkview High School in Orfordville.

‘Be free’

Neil Garcia, who performed with Milton High School’s Choralation, said there’s nothing else like show choir in high school.

“It’s so thrilling,” the senior said. “It’s this unique environment where you can let loose without any… You don’t feel like you’re being judged in a bad way.

“But you can … you can be free.”

Milton High School will also be hosting its own show choir event, Rock the Rock, on Saturday, Jan. 20.

Angela Major 

Alyssa Case, director of Parkview’s show choir teams, gives instruction during a pre-performance practice Saturday, January 6, 2018, at Parkview High School in Orfordville.

Seeing it all

The radio in Case’s ear had been going off all day—from students needing duct tape to toilets getting clogged.

But even before Saturday’s Xtravaganza, Case had already been deeply familiar with all things Pizazz.

“I’ve kind of seen it all,” she said.

This year she had to transform from the “fun Alyssa” to the director who had to tell people when enough was enough, she said.

She called herself a “control freak,” and in her first year as director, she said she had to learn to let go and trust the cast of volunteers around her.

The days leading up to the show were stressful, “because I am a perfectionist,” Case wrote in a Facebook post at 5:55 a.m. Saturday that she also recited to the Pizazz team right before their performance.

But the days felt easy, too.

“Easy because our little village held the weight of the day on their shoulders, and I’m not quite sure how, but without even being told, they made stuff work,” Case wrote.

For all the firsts on Saturday, it was the person with all the experience who spoke with the team right before they took the stage.

“The show choir world is the coolest thing out there. I promise you,” she said. “You will miss it when you’re not in high school.

“Why do you think I’m still here?”

Angela Major 

Pizzaz member Pamela Garcia practices the show choir’s ballad while looking into a mirror covered in notes expressing the show choir’s goals Saturday before her performance at Parkview High School in Orfordville.

Angela Major 

UW-Whitewater’s David Sachs drives past a UW-River Falls defender Saturday at UW-Whitewater in a key Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game. River Falls, ranked third, needed a layup in the final seconds to score an 81-80 win over the fifth-ranked Warhawks. Brennan Witt led River Falls with 30 points and 10 rebounds. Story, Page 1B.

Farmers gave Trump their votes. Now they’re looking for a return


Farmers are looking for a sign from President Donald Trump that their issues mean as much to him as their votes do.

Trump is scheduled to speak at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual conference in Nashville on Monday, the first sitting president to address the group in 26 years. He’ll be getting a warm welcome, even though there are policies his administration is pursuing that run counter to some farm interests.

“It doesn’t get any better than to have the president recognize the importance of farmers and ranchers to the rural economy,” said Kalena Bruce, a 32-year-old rancher from Cedar County, Miaaouri, where Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a 5-to-1 margin in the 2016 presidential election. “Rural America still supports President Trump.”

As he approaches his first anniversary in office, the president is struggling to fulfill his campaign promises to segments of his voting base, including farmers, and his approval ratings have been stuck at historically low levels.

Several of his policy stances—from threatened withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement, to immigration restrictions that could choke the flow of migrants to harvest U.S. crops, to cutting crop-insurance payments popular in agriculture—run contrary to the positions represented by Farm Bureau, the biggest U.S. farmer organization.

Still, Trump’s ties to rural voters are far from broken despite some strains, said Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska. An event that brings together individual farmers and representatives of major agribusinesses gives him a venue to shore up support.

“A lot of farm interests have felt overlooked or ignored in the first year of the Trump administration,” he said. “Farm Bureau is the place where you can get the most people in one place and rally the troops.”

The White House declined to preview the president’s address.

The Farm Bureau has a far reach, with offices in 2,795 of the nation’s 3,144 counties. It’s long been recognized as the top farmer group in Washington, where agribusiness is listed as the 10th-biggest industry in campaign contributions, just behind energy and ahead of construction, transportation and defense, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. The Farm Bureau spent more than $3 million on lobbying in 2017, second only to Monsanto Co. among organizations that serve farmers.

It’s also long been associated with conservative politics, holding more influence in Republican administrations. Farmers, though, are also swing voters, especially in states such as North Dakota and Indiana, where incumbent Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly are up for re-election in 2018. Trump won both states by wide margins last year.

While other parts of the U.S. economy are going strong, farmer finances have struggled since the end of a commodities boom in 2013. Profits in 2017 are estimated at less than half the record levels of four years earlier.

Crop prices have been stable but low. Futures for corn, the most valuable crop, closed last year at just over $3.50 a bushel, a fall of 0.4 percent from the previous year. Livestock has fared better, with cattle futures traded in Chicago up 4.7 percent, but well below boom-time prices. That has farm-state members of Congress calling for more generous payments under a new law governing farm subsidies due this year.

Farming is one of the few sectors of the U.S. economy with a trade surplus, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has touted the benefits of the NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico, even as Trump has threatened to scrap the deal. The sluggish economy and at-odds position on trade and other issues, such as immigration, that many farmers see as necessary for their harvests, means farmer support for Trump can’t be taken for granted, said former Senator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican who served as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Other than a June speech in Iowa in which he called for investment in rural broadband, Trump hasn’t talked a lot about farmers, Lugar said.

“Somebody probably said to the Trump hierarchy that the president better go to Farm Bureau and show some interest in agriculture,” Lugar said. “Changes to the corporate tax may create jobs, but this is not reflected in the lives or outlooks of many farmers.”

Bruce said she’s looking for “reassurance that we aren’t going to lose our exports” and hopes that Farm Bureau might help sway Trump a bit on trade while he’s in Nashville. But she and other farmers planning to attend the speech said they have plenty to like.

“One of Trump’s campaign promises was he would get regulations off our back, and you can see that happening,” said Scott VanderWal, a corn and soybean grower near Volga, South Dakota, 50 miles north of Sioux Falls. He cited White House moves to roll back a water rule detested by many farmers and his support for corn-based ethanol as two examples of Trump having agriculture at heart. The president would get more done if Congress were more aligned with him, VanderWal said.

“Everyone is frustrated with Congress,” said VanderWal, whose county, which includes a state university, gave Trump 53 percent of its vote. “The president has tried to do a lot of things, but members of Congress can’t get on the same page.”

Josh Ogle, a 40-year-old grower of cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat in Lincoln County, Tennessee, just north of the Alabama border, said he is “very pleased with the president’s first year.” His county gave Trump 78 percent of its vote in 2016.

“Secretary Perdue at USDA, Scott Pruitt at EPA, just to see these men in charge who are bullish about rural America and want to know your concerns. They’re taking a common-sense approach to rural America’s problems” by lowering taxes and relaxing regulations to create jobs, he said.

Those moves are more important to him than controversial tweets, accusations of collusion with Russia, or other daily conflicts from the White House, he said. “I don’t dwell on it,” said Ogle, who said he spends 15 to 20 minutes a day on Twitter and cited Fox News and ABC as news sources. “You try to decipher who you can read and who you can trust.”

He said he’d like more details on the new tax law.

“There are a lot of unknowns on that, and scare tactics from groups across the country that don’t want anything President Trump does to be seen as positive,” he said. “I really try to go for facts.”


local • 2A-3A, 8A

Light show dismantling begins

Rotary Botanical Gardens’ annual Holiday Light Show wrapped up its public season on New Year’s Eve, but it still has a handful of private tours scheduled through Jan. 15. Once those finish, grounds horticulturalist Larry Holterman begins the unenviable job of removing 425,000 lights and other decorations. He gets help from volunteers and part-time staff, but Holterman is the star of decoration takedown. Holterman hopes to be done by mid-March, he said.

sports • 1B-7B

Philbin returning to Packers

Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy saw a chance to bring back one of his most trusted assistants during his 12-year tenure and didn’t hesitate to create a spot for him on his staff. Joe Philbin, who served as McCarthy’s offensive line coach and offensive coordinator during his six-year stint with the Packers, has agreed to return to the Packers in a yet-to-be-defined offensive role, a source confirmed Saturday.

nation/world • 8B-9B

Is appliance a key to climate?

More than any other household good, the air conditioner symbolizes the soaring aspirations of India—one of the world’s fastest-growing major economies. Although only 5 percent of Indians own the appliances today, they are buying millions more every year, driving a worldwide boom that, according to one estimate, will nearly triple the global stock of air conditioners to 2.5 billion by 2050.

Jerry Van Dyke dies at age 86

Jerry Van Dyke, the younger brother of Dick Van Dyke who struggled for decades to achieve his own stardom before clicking as the dim-witted sidekick in television’s “Coach,” died Friday in Hot Spring County, Arkansas, according to his manager. He was 86.