Criminal Law

What Is a Suspended Sentence?

Time in prison may be the worst part of a criminal sentence. However, many criminal charges do not require incarceration after a conviction. There are non-jail alternatives that allow people to return to their families and jobs, limiting the long-term damage caused by prison terms. A suspended sentence, for example, could allow you to delay or avoid serving a prison sentence in exchange for probation.

If you have questions about non-prison options, including negotiating a suspended sentence, ask your criminal defense lawyer for advice.

Do I Qualify For a Suspended Sentence?

If you are convicted of a crime, the next step in the process is generally sentencing. During sentencing, the judge may impose a jail sentence but then suspend that sentence. Under a suspended sentence, you can serve the jail sentence on probation instead of in jail. If you complete the terms of your suspended sentence, the court can dismiss the original sentence, and you will no longer face jail time for the conviction.

A suspended sentence may be available for first-time offenders, non-violent offenses, or low-level crimes that were motivated by substance abuse or mental health problems. Prosecutors may also offer a suspended sentence as part of a plea bargain, where the prosecutor will recommend probation if you plead guilty. Do not agree to any plea bargains without first talking over your options with a lawyer.

Suspended sentence options vary by state. Some states have sentencing guidelines that recommend suspended sentences for certain offenses. In many cases, the judge has a lot of discretion to decide whether to suspend a prison sentence. Factors that may increase the chance of getting a suspended sentence include:

  • Pleading guilty as part of a plea agreement
  • Showing remorse and taking responsibility for your actions
  • Having prior criminal history
  • Committing a non-violent offense
  • Demonstrating a likelihood of rehabilitation
  • Participating in drug or alcohol rehabilitation
  • Demonstrating the presence of a mental health condition
  • Proving a low risk of re-offending
  • Paying restitution

Restrictions and Requirements

A suspended sentence may still involve several non-jail penalties and restrictions, including following the terms of probation. This may mean that you have to stay on probation and regularly check in with a probation officer for several years. Depending on the type of offense, the terms of your probation may include:

  • Paying fines and restitution
  • Checking in with a probation officer
  • Submitting to random searches and drug tests
  • Undergoing mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment
  • Performing community service

If you are on a suspended sentence, the judge already sentenced you. If you do not follow the terms that the judge set, the court may withdraw probation and order you to serve your sentence in jail. If you are concerned about a probation violation, talk to your criminal defense attorney about getting another chance at probation instead of going to jail.

Split Sentence

A split sentence includes a set period of time in jail and a suspended sentence. For example, a judge could impose a five-year prison sentence with a three-year suspended sentence. After you spend two years in prison, you will be eligible for probation for the remainder of your sentence. However, a probation violation could mean going back to prison to serve out the full sentence.

Difference Between a Suspended Sentence and a Deferred Sentence

A suspended sentence can be confused with other types of non-prison alternatives, including a deferred sentence or diversion program. With a suspended sentence, you will still have a conviction on your public record that may show up in a background check after you complete your period of probation.

With a deferred sentence or stay of adjudication, you will not have a conviction on your record if you complete the terms of probation. A diversion program is another type of non-jail alternative that may keep your public criminal record clear if you complete the program. Diversion or deferred judgment may not show up in a background check, and you can claim you were never convicted of a crime on a job application.

Talk to Your Lawyer About a Suspended Sentence

A suspended sentence may be available in your case. Your criminal defense attorney may be able to negotiate to reduce your charges or get a suspended sentence as part of a plea deal. If you fight the criminal charges but are still found guilty, your lawyer can also help you get a suspended sentence by showing mitigating factors to reduce your penalties. Mitigating factors in sentencing to avoid prison time may include whether you:

  • Were a minor participant in the crime
  • Were suffering a mental disturbance
  • Have no prior criminal record
  • Acknowledge wrongdoing
  • Made restitution to the victim
  • Are a military veteran

However, accepting a suspended sentence when there may be another non-jail alternative on the table could be a mistake. Your attorney will work to get the best possible outcome on your behalf, and you should discuss all your options before making any decisions.