Alternative Sentences

Suspended sentences can be unconditional or conditional. An unconditional suspended sentence has no additional penalties except the criminal conviction, which remains part of the criminal record. There is no jail time, and it's typically offered in a plea agreement for low-level, nonviolent crimes.

Sentences for a criminal conviction take many forms. A conviction doesn't always mean a trip to jail or a prison sentence. The criminal justice system allows for alternative sentencing options, including:

  • A suspended sentence
  • House arrest
  • Probation
  • Fines and restitution
  • Community service
  • Deferred adjudication/pretrial diversion

criminal defense lawyer can negotiate an alternative sentence in your plea agreement. This article explores alternative sentencing that could apply in a criminal case.

Suspended Sentences

A judge typically announces the criminal sentence after a defendant enters a guilty plea or conviction. A judge can issue a suspended sentence as an alternative to imprisonment. This is where the judge either:

  • Refrains from announcing and handing down a sentence (stay of imposition) or
  • Decides on a sentence but refrains from having the defendant carry it out (stay of execution)

Judges determine whether to impose alternative sentences based on:

  • The type and severity of criminal charges
  • The defendant's criminal history
  • The age of the defendant
  • The defendant's remorse

If the suspended sentence is conditional, the judge can hold off from imposing the punishment so long as the defendant fulfills the conditions and remains law-abiding. It pauses the execution of the sentence for a specified period.

Common conditions include:

  • Completing a substance abuse treatment program
  • Maintaining curfew while on electronic monitoring or home detention
  • Entering a rehabilitation program
  • Random drug tests


Another alternative to prison is probation. Like a suspended sentence, probation releases a defendant back into the community. Still, they do not have the same level of freedom as an ordinary citizen. Statutes determine when probation is possible. It is up to the sentencing judge to decide whether to grant probation. Courts typically grant probation for first-time or low-risk offenders.

Probation comes with conditions that restrict behavior. Judges have a great deal of discretion over which conditions of probation to impose. Additionally, a probation officer is assigned to each probationer to ensure compliance. If the probationer violates one of those conditions, the prosecution may file a motion to revoke or modify the probation.


Almost all of us have had to pay a fine once or twice, often as a traffic or parking ticket. In many situations, people convicted of more serious crimes, such as felony offenses, must also pay fines. Generally, fines are imposed to:

  • Punish the offender
  • Help compensate the state for the offense
  • Deter any future criminal acts


Restitution is like a fine, but the payment made by the perpetrator of a crime goes to the victims instead of the court or municipality. Judges often order restitution in cases where victims suffered financial loss because of the crime. The payment is a form of restorative justice. It's designed to make the victims whole and restore them to their position before the crime.

For example, a graffiti artist who spray paints the side of a business may be ordered to pay restitution to the business owner for the property damage. The business owner could then repaint the building. In another example, a defendant who injures a victim in a fight must compensate the victim for their medical expenses.

Court Ordered Community Service

In some circumstances, a judge will order a criminal defendant to complete work on behalf of the community, usually in exchange for a reduction of fines or jail time. Court-ordered community service usually accompanies some other type of alternative sentencing, such as probation. The community benefits from the work and avoids the cost of incarceration.

Deferred Adjudication/Pretrial Diversion

Deferred adjudication or diversion programs remove the defendant from the ordinary prosecution process. These alternative sentencing programs allow certain charges to be dismissed after offenders complete program expectations as long as they have no new offenses.

The goal is to allow defendants time to demonstrate that they can behave responsibly with adequate social services or mental health resources. In some states, drug courts recognize first-time offenders arrested for drug offenses have a chance not to become repeat offenders if they complete a chemical dependency treatment program.

Jurisdictions vary on the length of the programs and the eligibility requirements. For example, each county attorney's office in Minnesota determines diversion eligibility for certain property and drug crimes. However, prior convictions for felony offenses will exclude certain defendants from participating.

Like drug courts, mental health courts divert people diagnosed with mental illness into therapeutic treatment programs to reduce recidivism and improve their quality of life. Seven states do not have adult mental health courts:

  • Connecticut
  • Nebraska
  • New Jersey
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • Rhode Island
  • Wyoming

The duration of the programs can vary based on an individual's participation and progress through each phase or the length of the deferred sentence, for example, up to one year. Courts may use jail time, change in housing, and stricter treatment conditions as sanctions.

In 2020, Congress passed the Veterans Treatment Court Coordination Act. This provides funding to state, local, and tribal governments to develop and maintain veterans treatment courts. These courts focus on recovery support services for veterans involved in the criminal law justice system. This includes veterans with substance use disorders, a history of violence, and post-traumatic stress disorder due to their military service.


If you fail to abide by the conditions of your alternative sentence, such as failing to pay restitution or getting arrested for new offenses, you could face severe penalties, including:

  • A judgment by the court
  • Ineligibility for future diversion programs
  • Execution of your stayed sentence in county jail or boot camp

You can contest the grounds of the alleged violation by requesting a probation violation hearing or other evidentiary hearing.

Have Questions About Alternative Sentences? Ask an Attorney

No matter what criminal matter you're facing, consult an experienced attorney. Some low-level offenses, such as nonviolent misdemeanors, may be eligible for alternative sentences that don't include jail time.

Even if you're charged with serious offenses such as domestic violence or driving under the influence (DUI), it does not have to result in prison time. Contacting a local criminal defense attorney to better understand your situation and the path forward is a good idea.

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