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What is a Suspended Sentence?

When facing criminal charges, the thought of going to prison may seem terrifying. However, many defendants are able to avoid jail time with probation or a suspended sentence. With a suspended sentence, the judge can impose a jail term but suspend sentencing 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 is important for them to follow the terms of probation or they could end up back in jail.

Who is Eligible for a Suspended Sentence?

The court may offer a suspended sentence to anyone convicted of a minor, non-violent 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 are not allowed for categories of crimes or offenders. Mandatory minimum sentences set by criminal statutes for more serious crimes or repeat offenses often include a specific provision that prevents the sentence from being suspended. Other statutes tend to give judges more discretion.

Probation and a Suspended Sentence

For most defendants with a suspended sentence, they will have to comply with the terms of probation or risk getting put in jail. The length of probation can depend on the judge, limits in state law, and the severity of the criminal charges; a typical term of probation is from one to five 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
  • Regular payment of probation fees, court costs, fines, or restitution
  • Avoiding any further criminal charges

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 is able to avoid jail time. However, if the defendant violates probation or commits a new crime, the judge can impose additional restrictions or withdraw the suspended sentence and put the defendant in jail to serve out 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.

Deferred sentencing, a stay of adjudication, or deferred adjudication are all slightly different from a suspended sentence. 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 abides by 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. The judge may, after a conviction, 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 or conditions of probation. An unconditional discharge is the end of the criminal sentence, and 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 will not serve jail time or probation. 

This sentencing tool is not commonly used, and 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 are suspended, and 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. If you need help with understanding a plea bargain or want to know how to avoid jail time, you should get in touch with an experienced criminal defense attorney to better understand your situation.

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