Rather than sentencing an offender to a period in prison, a suspended sentence will allow the defendant to return to the community rather than going to prison.
Suspended sentences are sometimes used in situations where the offender has committed a less serious crime or where they can demonstrate a previously good record.
A court may decide to grant a defendant a suspended sentence if the length of time the defendant would spend in prison is less than 12 months.
If an offender is given a suspended sentence they usually don’t go to prison, they can return home and live in the community but they are subject to certain restrictions.
A suspended sentence can be either conditional or unconditional.
Unconditional suspended sentences mean that there are no conditions attached once the sentence has been issued but the conviction is still on public record.
With conditional sentences judges are able to put a hold on imposing the punishment for as long as the defendant meets the conditions of the suspension.
Common conditions enforced on a suspended sentence could be anything from enrolling in an alcohol or substance misuse program through to not committing further crimes.
If the defendant breaches the conditions of the suspended sentence they can be sent to prison to serve the term outlined by the judge.
When a judge suspends the obligation of a prison sentence, they will decline to hand down a sentence but retain the right to do so in the future if the situation changes or the offender breaches the conditions of the sentence.
Suspending a Sentence
The majority of criminal courts will have the power to suspend a sentence before it is imposed on the defendant so long as the suspension is for a specific amount of time and this period of time is reasonable.
Not every jurisdiction will recognise that the court holds the power to suspend the sentence and in these areas there must be a law which grants authorization allowing sentences to be suspended.
If the offence committed by the defendant requires mandatory sentencing, then a suspended sentence is not possible and the judge must impose the sentence.
If a court suspends the imposition of a sentence, they can revoke the suspension and then impose any sentence which was available at the time the defendant was convicted.
This often happens in a conditional suspended sentence where defendants have breached the terms of the suspension. If a sentence is revoked, then it is up to the judge to decide what sentence they wish to impose.
As well as being able to decline imposing a suspended sentence, the judge can suspend the sentence before it goes into effect which means that once the sentence is in place the defendant does not have to serve the sentence straightaway if at all.
Suspended Sentencing Explained
At the time of being sentenced, depending on the nature of the offence and its seriousness which will be determined by the facts presented in the case and any mitigating or aggravating circumstances, there are many different options available when it comes to sentencing.
The lowest form of a ‘sentence’ is a discharge through to fines, community orders and for the most serious crimes custodial sentences.
To move upward through each of the different options, certain thresholds have to be passed to reach the most severe sentence which is that of custody.
The threshold for custody is when the judge considers that no other punishment would be suitable for the circumstances to achieve the objectives of the criminal justice system to provide punishment and rehabilitation and to prevent re-offending.
Once the custody threshold has been passed, a judge can consider imposing a sentence term on the defendant.
If the sentence is less than 12 months, the judge can consider whether to suspend the sentence and whether any conditions should be imposed on the defendant if they choose to do so.
In this instance the case would be referred to the Magistrates Court.
The Power to Suspend
If a court is passing multiple sentences for two or more offences they do have the power to suspend but this can only be exercised if the total amount of the sentence does not exceed 12 months or 6 months at the Magistrates Court.
Suspended sentences can be passed in relation to a term of imprisonment for those over the age of 21 but also those 18 or over who have been sentenced to a detention centre of young offender’s institute which is an alternative to prison for young offenders.
If the judge presiding over the case decides to impose a suspended sentence they must define a period of suspension which is often referred to as an operational period which could be anywhere between six months and two years.
When a court passes a suspended sentence, they may also require the offender to adhere to specific requirements through a supervision period which must not be any longer than the operational period. Typical requirements of defendants in the supervision period could include;
- Unpaid Work or Community Sentence
- Participation in activities or programmes
- Prohibited activity requirements
- Mental Health
- Drug or alcohol rehabilitation
- Attendance Centre when the offender is under the age of 25 years
These conditions can be imposed for a period of up to two years.
Suspended sentences are often accompanied by a fine and if a judge is to pass a suspended sentence they must state this in open court and explain the terms to the defendant in full outlining the supervision and operation periods and the implications of failing to comply with any conditions.
Breaching a Suspended Sentence
If the individual commits and offence while they are serving a suspended sentence, the actual sentence that was suspended in the first place will come into being. Furthermore, if an offender fails to carry out a requirement which has been imposed by the court as a condition, this would be classed as a breach of the court order and would activate the custodial term of the sentence.
Once a suspended sentence has been breached, there are three options available to the court.
1. The court has the power to order the offender to serve the custodial term as outlined in the sentence.
2. Using the power of the court, they can enforce the term of imprisonment provided that it is not less than 14 days.
3. An order can be amended to impose a more onerous community requirement, extend a supervision or operational period.
This restriction cannot be for more than two years.
Sentences by Crown Courts
Crown courts often deal with breaches relating to a suspended sentence regardless of where the sentence was issued. Magistrates Courts can only deal with offenders who breach sentence conditions if the sentence was issued by the Magistrates Court.
If their powers are deemed to be inadequate to deal with the offender they can refer the case to the Crown Court.
Rehabilitation periods for a suspended sentence are based on the length of the prison sentence rather than the length of time the sentence was suspended for.
For a sentence that is more than four years or a where the individual has received a sentence in relation to public protection, the conviction will never be spent.
Sentences between 30 months but less than 4 years – The conviction will be spent after the term of the sentence plus a further 7 years
Sentences more than 6 months but less than 30 months – Conviction is spent after the term of the sentence plus another 4 years
Sentences less than six months – Conviction is spent after the term of the sentence plus 2 years.
Before a sentence is spent it must be declared if you are applying for work or to financial institutions.
You may also be asked to declare any convictions if you are applying for rental property.
Rehabilitation of Offenders Act
Prison sentences are related to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act so once the sentence is ‘spent’ you are not obliged to disclose it unless there are exceptions such as an application made to work with children or vulnerable adults.
A Disclosure and Barring Service check which is required for some vacancies will show any convictions which are unspent. Standard or enhanced disclosures will display any custodial sentence whether it is classed as ‘spent’ or not.
A judge has to be satisfied when granting a suspended sentence that the individual will not pose a threat to the local community and provided that the offender complies with the conditions of suspended sentences they can completely avoid spending any time in prison.
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