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Home > Pre-sentence reports and individualised justice: consistency, temporality and contingency.

Guiney, Ciara (2018) Pre-sentence reports and individualised justice: consistency, temporality and contingency. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 66, Summer 2018, pp. 10-11.

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With the aim of decreasing the dependence by criminal justice systems on imprisonment, numerous reports have encouraged drawing on a wider array of alternatives to prison, for example, pre-sentence reports (PSRs). PSRs are requested by judges from probation officers after a defendant is found guilty and before sentencing. They contain in-depth information about the defendant, such as personal circumstances, background, ability to engage in rehabilitation, risk of reoffending, and may also provide guidance on sentencing and rehabilitation, which may or may not inform sentencing. Primarily, research has highlighted the importance of PSRs; however, although they are regularly used in Ireland, despite no statutory requirement to do so, the process involved is not clearly understood.


This article presents the main findings of a study entitled Individualising justice: pre-sentence reports in the Irish criminal justice system, which was commissioned by the Probation Service to investigate the role of PSRs within the Irish criminal justice system.1,2 More specifically, this study: 

  • Investigated the circumstances in which pre-sentence reports are used by judges.
  • Explored the construction of pre-sentence reports by probations officers and how they were interpreted by judges.
  • Explored how PSRs impact on sentencing (pp. 9–10).1


The study was mainly qualitative and utilised a range of methods: 

  • Observation of probation interview practices (n=21), ranging from two to four per defendant
  • Content analysis of pre-sentence reports from the District Court (n=5) and Circuit Court (n=4)
  • Semi-structured interviews with probation officers (n=9) and judges (n=5) 


As shown in Table 1, three of the cases reviewed were related to drug offences.


Probation officer perspectives

Due to the high association between sentence recommendations and actual sentencing outcomes, probation officers felt confident that their reports were well received in court. However, they were uncertain as to whether judges read the reports in full or whether judges and probation officers had a shared understanding of risk assessment.1


Judges perspectives

In the main, judges’ perceptions of PSRs and their part in sentencing was positive. They welcomed ‘clear direction’ from probation officers because their expertise was in the ‘social’ area and risk assessment, which many judges did not understand (p. 110).1 Feelings towards the Probation Service was also positive. Judges believed that imprisonment could have a harmful impact and thus community sentences were a step towards rehabilitation. However, referral decisions were moderated due to knowledge that resources were lacking and the belief that cases needed to be prioritised.



As acknowledged by the authors, although the information gleaned provided an increased understanding of PSRs and the process involved in Ireland, this study centred on one metropolitan area. It is already known that court practices and cultures and the use of PSRs and community sanctions differ throughout Ireland. Consequently, generalisability of the findings of this study to other areas is questionable. Additionally, a central characteristic of the five judges who participated in this study was that they were all advocates of PSRs and community sanctions. Hence, the beliefs reported may not be reflective of judges who are not inclined to use PSRs or community sanctions. It was understood from the initial design of the study that defendant perceptions of PSRs and the process would be sought using interviews. However, the length of time taken between requesting a PSR and sentencing made it challenging and impossible to follow-up the defendants. If this information had been collected, it would have added another dimension to the findings.



The authors concluded that PSRs play a vital but somewhat unrecognised part within the Irish criminal justice system. They allow two diverse professional groups, probation officers and judges, to communicate and interact. Despite differences in the philosophical underpinnings of these professions, they both appreciate the functionality of the PSR, formally in assisting judicial decision-making and informally by providing a pause in the process, which gives defendants a chance to engage, thus illustrating their ability and commitment to change. Nevertheless, as evidenced by this study, there were variations in how PSRs are utilised, which could be explained by inadequate policy and legislative guidance.


As acknowledged by the authors, this study provided insight and further understanding of PSRs and the process involved in their utilisation from an Irish context. However, further research is required to address the limitations identified.


1 Maguire N and Carr N (2017) Individualising justice: pre-sentence reports in the Irish criminal justice system. Dublin: Probation Service.

2 Carr N and Maguire N (2017) Pre-sentence reports and individualised justice: consistency, temporality and contingency. Irish Probation Journal, 14: 52–71.

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 66, Summer 2018
September 2018
Page Range
pp. 10-11
Health Research Board
Issue 66, Summer 2018

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