Alternative Sentences

Sentences for a criminal conviction can take many forms, and a conviction doesn’t always mean a trip to jail or prison. Alternative sentences can include different combinations of the following: a suspended sentence, probation, fines, restitution, community service and deferred adjudication/pretrial diversion. Judges typically determine whether to impose alternative sentences based on the type and severity of the crime, the age of the defendant, the defendants criminal history, the effect of the crime on the victims, and the defendants remorse. The articles below explore the different types of alternative sentences in more detail.

Suspended Sentences

As an alternative to imprisonment, a judge can issue a suspended sentence where he or she either refrains from handing down a sentence or decides on a sentence but refrains from carrying it out. This is generally reserved for less serious crimes or first-time offenders. Suspended sentences can be unconditional or conditional. An unconditional suspended sentence simply suspends the sentence with no strings attached.

If the suspended sentence is conditional, the judge can hold off from either imposing or executing the punishment so long as the defendant fulfills the condition of the suspension. Common conditions can include enrolling in a substance abuse program and not committing any further crimes. If the conditions aren’t met, the judge can then either impose or execute a sentence.


Another alternative to prison is probation. Similar to a suspended sentence, probation releases a defendant back into the community, but he or she does not have the same level of freedom as a normal citizen. Courts typically grant probation for first-time or low-risk offenders. Statutes determine when probation is possible, but it is up to the sentencing judge to determine whether or not to actually grant probation.

Probation comes with conditions that restrict behavior, and if the probationer violates one of those conditions, the court may revoke or modify the probation. Courts have a great deal of discretion when imposing probation conditions.


Almost all of us have had to pay a fine once or twice, most often in the form of a speeding or parking ticket. People convicted of more serious crimes also have to pay fines in many situations, although the amount of the fine is usually much more substantial than a traffic ticket. Generally, fines are imposed to punish the offender, help compensate the state for the offense, and deter any future criminal acts.


Restitution is like a fine, but the payment made by the perpetrator of a crime goes to the victims of that crime instead of the court or municipality. Judges often order restitution be paid in cases where victims suffered some kind of financial setback as the result of a crime. The payment is designed to make the victims whole and restore them financially to the point they were at prior to the commission of the crime.

For example, a graffiti artist who spray paints the side of a business may be ordered to pay restitution to the business owners who could then repaint the building. In another example, a defendant who injured his victim in a fight may be ordered to compensate the victim for his medical expenses.

Court Ordered Community Service

In some cases, a judge will order a criminal offender to perform work on behalf of the community, usually in exchange for a reduction of fines and/or incarceration. Court ordered community service can accompany some other form of alternative sentence with the intent that performing community service offers more benefit to society than being incarcerated. The community benefits from the work that the offender performs and avoids the cost of incarceration while the offender benefits from a lesser sentence and hopefully learns from his or her work experience.

Deferred Adjudication / Pretrial Diversion

Certain types of offenses and offenders may qualify for programs that result in having charges dismissed if the defendant completes specified conditions. Sometimes called deferred adjudication or diversion, these programs take the defendant out of the ordinary process of prosecution so he or she can complete certain conditions. Once he or she is done, either the prosecutor or the court dismisses the charges.

The goal of diversion programs is to allow a defendant time to demonstrate that they are capable of behaving responsibly, and they are typically used for drug offenses or first-time offenders. Normally, the conditions imposed include some form of counseling and/or probation, and require the defendant to stay out of trouble.

More Information

Every criminal case is different, and it is often difficult to know whether you’re eligible for an alternative sentence or which ones a court may impose. If you’ve been charged with a crime, you may want to consult with an experienced criminal attorney in your area. You can also visit FindLaw’s criminal law section for more general information on this topic.

Have Questions About Alternative Sentences? Ask an Attorney

Lots of crimes can be punished with alternative sentences that don't include jail or prison time. No matter what criminal matter you're considering or facing, only an expert criminal defense attorney can be relied on to explain your state's laws to help you predict your best course of action. So, if you've been charged with a crime, it's a good idea to contact a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible to better understand your situation.

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