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.”
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.”