Not every conviction results in a prison sentence. For low-level and non-violent offenses, sentencing could involve probation, fines, restitution, and community service instead of confinement.
Some alternatives to prison can happen before you are convicted of a crime. For example, in a diversion program the government agrees to drop the charges against you if you successfully complete a drug treatment or anger management program. Diversion programs are more common for alcohol and drug-related offenses. Because this occurs before your trial, if you successfully complete a diversion program you will not be considered guilty of whatever crime it was you were charged with.
If you are found guilty of a crime (or, more likely, pled guilty as part of a plea bargain) you will be sentenced according to federal or state sentencing guidelines. How much time you are likely to serve will vary greatly, of course, and can depend on things like prior criminal history. However, the types of sentences you may receive can be placed into several broad categories:
Not every criminal conviction is eligible for probation. Whether you can receive probation will depend on the type of crime, the jurisdiction you are in, and whether you have a plea deal with the prosecution.
You can ask your criminal defense lawyer if probation may be a possibility. To provide just a few examples, if you are convicted of a federal crime you will not be eligible for probation if:
Federal and state sentencing guidelines also determine whether probation is a possibility. Judges sometimes have the ability to deviate from sentencing guidelines if there is good reason to.
Probation and parole are also terms that can be difficult to distinguish. Probation is an alternative to prison time. Parole, on the other hand, involves a release from prison.
If you are sentenced to probation the court will be clear about the conditions you have to meet. These conditions typically include meeting with your probation officer, taking drug or alcohol tests, and finding work. A probation officer will meet with you and monitor your compliance with the conditions.
If you are convicted of a felony offense and sentenced to imprisonment for more than one year, you will typically serve time in prison. Many people use jail and prison interchangeably. However, jail is generally the term for locally run facilities that house those under arrest or who are awaiting sentencing. If your sentence is less than a year you may serve all of your time in jail.
Prisons are typically for convicted offenders serving out their full sentence. That is not necessarily the end of the story, however. Once in prison, you may be able to get your sentenced reduced by exhibiting good behavior (provided you are not serving a life sentence). In federal prison, the Bureau of Prisons is responsible for determining if you have exhibited good behavior. You can demonstrate good behavior by following all the rules, completing anger management or substance abuse courses, peacefully participating in approved activities, and otherwise getting along with guards and other prisoners.
On occasion courts get creative with sentencing. For some young adult offenders, for example, judges in certain states have given offenders the option between prison time or joining the military. Sometimes judges will set unique conditions in probation directly related to the crime. For example, when sentencing defendants accused of financial crimes such as fraud, judges have included as a condition of probation giving lectures to students about what the offender did and the consequences of their actions.
Federal and state prisons are often overcrowded. Lawmakers have also been more reluctant to pass mandatory minimum sentence laws in recent years. That means defendants often have a better chance at alternative sentencing now than in previous decades. However, many crimes still require minimum prison sentences, and many crimes are not eligible for probation. Because criminal defendants want to avoid prison, your criminal defense attorney will be aware of whether probation or other alternative sentence is a possibility and can walk you through the best options in your case.