What Is a Suspended Sentence?

If the defendant completes the term of probation without any violations, the suspended sentence can be discharged. The defendant will still end up with a criminal conviction on their record, but they can avoid jail time.

The thought of going to prison may seem terrifying when facing criminal charges, but many defendants can avoid jail time with probation or a suspended sentence. With a suspended sentence, the judge can still impose a jail term. The judge will suspend the jail sentence to allow the defendant to serve probation instead of time behind bars. Suspended sentencing can also help the state avoid jail overcrowding.

When a suspended sentence is hanging over the defendant's head, it's important for them to follow the terms of probation. If there is a violation during the period of probation, they could end up back in jail to serve their prison sentence.

Who Is Eligible for a Suspended Sentence?

The court may offer a suspended sentence to anyone convicted of a minor, non-violent offense with no criminal history. An example would be a misdemeanor criminal offense where the defendant does not pose a risk of danger to the community. Many first-time, low-level offenders will be eligible for a suspended sentence or other alternative sentencing. A suspended sentence also allows the defendant to stay employed or attend school and may reduce the risk of recidivism.

Sometimes, suspended sentences aren't allowed for certain categories of crimes or offenders. Criminal statutes set mandatory minimum sentencing options. These are codified laws for the imposition of a sentence for:

Some criminal statutes include a specific provision preventing the original sentence from being suspended. Other criminal case statutes give judges more discretion to avoid a court order for prison time.

Probation and a Suspended Sentence

Most defendants with a suspended sentence will have to comply with the terms of probation. A probation violation creates the risk of getting put in jail to serve a prison term. The length of probation can depend on:

  • The judge's personal discretion
  • The accompanying (suspended) term of imprisonment
  • Limits in state law
  • The severity of the criminal charges

A typical term of probation is from one to five years. Depending on your state, the average misdemeanor probation may be for three years. The terms of probation may also depend on the criminal charges involved. 

Conditions of probation may include:

  • Reporting to the probation officer
  • Community service
  • Substance abuse counseling
  • Other offense-specific programs, like certified batterer's intervention or sexual offender counseling
  • Random drug tests
  • A requirement to seek and retain employment
  • Fines and restitution
  • Living at a particular address or within a particular geographic area
  • Curfew for a period of time
  • Regular payment of probation fees, court costs, fines, or restitution
  • Avoiding any further criminal charges

 If the defendant violates probation or commits a new crime, the judge can issue a revocation of the probation. The judge can also impose additional restrictions or withdraw the suspended sentence and put the defendant in jail to serve the remainder of the sentence.

Delayed or Postponed Sentences

The term suspended sentence can also be called a postponed sentence or delayed sentence. Delayed sentencing often follows a plea bargain. A plea bargain is an agreement by the defendant to plead guilty to a crime in exchange for a reduced sentence. For many first-time offenders, the prosecutor will offer a suspended sentence as a way to negotiate a plea agreement so the defendant can plead guilty but avoid jail time.

The following are all slightly different from a suspended sentence:

  • Deferred sentencing
  • A stay of adjudication
  • Deferred adjudication

With deferred adjudication, the judge delays entering a conviction and allows the defendant to serve out the terms of probation, sometimes unsupervised, as an alternative to jail time. If the defendant follows the conditions without getting into any new trouble, the judge can dismiss the criminal charges and the individual avoids a criminal conviction on their record.

Delayed sentencing can also occur when the two sides of the case do not agree on the appropriate sentence. After a conviction, the judge may give each side time to prepare an argument on sentencing, which will be heard at a subsequent hearing.

Sometimes, sentences are imposed but then delayed for other reasons. A defendant who is hospitalized, for example, might not need to report to jail until after discharge.

Unconditional Discharge

A sentence of an unconditional discharge generally means the defendant is not subject to:

  • Any imprisonment or terms
  • Conditions of probation

An unconditional discharge is the end of the criminal sentence. The defendant is released with no further penalties or restrictions. The defendant will still have a criminal record and will have been found legally responsible for the criminal act, but they won't serve jail time or probation.

This sentencing tool isn't commonly used. It tends to appear only in extraordinary circumstances or as part of a wider plea agreement that includes penalties imposed in other cases.

Partially Suspended or Split Sentences

A split sentence or partially suspended sentence combines jail time and probation. The defendant may be sentenced to a term of years but can be released on probation after serving the unsuspended sentence. For example, a judge may order that four years of a five-year sentence be suspended. The judge can then provide for a term of probation after the execution of the one-year unsuspended portion.

If probation is completed successfully, the suspended four years are never served. If the defendant violates probation, they could be sent right back to jail to serve part or all of the remaining unsuspended sentence.

Discuss Suspended Sentences With an Attorney

Suspended sentences in criminal law vary depending on the jurisdiction of the sentencing. You may need help with understanding a plea bargain, or perhaps you want to know how to avoid jail time. In these situations, you should get in touch with an experienced criminal defense attorney to better understand the law. A client relationship with a criminal defense lawyer ensures that your rights are protected.

Was this helpful?

Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Complex criminal defense situations usually require a lawyer
  • Defense attorneys can help protect your rights
  • A lawyer can seek to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties

Get tailored advice and ask your legal questions. Many attorneys offer free consultations.


If you need an attorney, find one right now.