What is a Suspended Sentence?

Created by FindLaw's team of attorney writers and editors.

As an alternative to imprisonment, a judge can suspend a prison or jail sentence. This is typically used in cases involving less serious crimes or for first-time offenders and there are several different kinds.

First, a judge can either suspend a sentence before the sentence is imposed, or before it is executed. Before the imposition means that a judge refrains from handing down a sentence at all. However, if a sentence is suspended prior to the execution, it means that a judge has decided on a sentence, but has refrained from actually carrying it out.

Another classification is unconditional or conditional. For an unconditional sentence, it means that there are no strings attached, but the conviction is still a matter of public record.

If the sentence is conditional, the judge can hold off from either imposing or executing the punishment for as long as the defendant fulfills the condition of the suspension. Common conditions may include not committing other crimes or enrolling in a substance abuse program. If a defendant violates the terms of a conditional suspension, the judge can then either impose or execute a sentence.

Prior to the Imposition

When a judge suspends the imposition of a sentence, they have essentially declined to hand down a sentence, but reserved the right to do it later. Most criminal courts have the inherent power to suspend a sentence prior to its imposition as long as the suspension is for a specific amount of time and that period of time is reasonable. Not all jurisdictions recognize the inherent power of a court to suspend a sentence, however. In these jurisdictions, there must be a law specifically authorizing suspended sentences before a judge can do it.

Judges may also lack the ability to suspend a sentence before its imposition if a mandatory sentencing law applies to the criminal act in question. In these situations, the judge must impose the sentence required by statute.

Finally, a court that has suspended the imposition of a sentence can revoke the suspension and impose any sentence that was available to it at the time of conviction. This is usually the case in conditional suspended sentences where the defendant has violated a condition of the suspension. A judge can review the issue and decide whether or not to revoke the suspension and, if revoked, what sentence to impose.

Prior to the Execution

In addition to declining to impose a sentence, judges can suspend sentences before they go into effect. This means that, although a sentence is in place, the defendant doesn't have to serve it immediately, if at all.

As in the case of sentences suspended before the imposition, most criminal courts enjoy the inherent power to suspend sentences prior to their execution. However, not every jurisdiction recognizes a courts inherent authority to do this. Sometimes there has to be a law on the books that allows judges to suspend execution of a sentence.

Some jurisdictions also require judges to suspend sentences immediately after they are handed down. For instance, mandatory sentencing provisions also restrict the ability of judges to suspend the execution of a sentence just as they restrict a judges power to suspend the imposition of a sentence.

If the suspended sentence is conditional, the judge can revoke the suspension if the defendant violates any of the conditions. At that point, the sentence would go into effect just as if the judge hadn't ever suspended the execution.

Discuss Suspended Sentences with an Attorney

Suspended sentences in criminal law vary depending on the nature and of the suspended sentence and the court executing the sentence. If you need help with these matters, you should get in touch with an experienced criminal defense attorney to better understand your situation.

Next Steps

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