In criminal law, a suspended sentence is an alternative to imprisonment where a judge may partially or entirely suspend the convicted individual's prison or jail sentence so long as they fulfill certain conditions. If the conditions are violated, then the state may petition to revoke the suspended sentence and reimpose the original term of the sentence by proving, in an evidentiary hearing and by a preponderance of evidence standard, that the defendant indeed violated the condition(s).
Suspended sentences are based on public policy goals of rehabilitating offenders. As courts in Virginia have explained: "[t]he true objective of suspended sentencing is to rehabilitate and to encourage a convicted defendant to be of good behavior. To accomplish this, it is necessary that good conduct be rewarded. It is important that a defendant know that good conduct on his part will expedite his complete restoration to society."
While conditions to a suspended sentence generally have to be expressly stated to the defendant, there is disagreement among jurisdictions as to whether good behavior, or refrainment from committing a crime, needs to be expressly stated as well. Jurisdictions like New Hampshire and Virginia have held that suspended sentences have an implicit condition of good behavior, as good behavior is fundamental to the purpose of suspended sentences. On the other hand, jurisdictions like Arkansas have held the contrary, that all conditions, including good behavior, must be expressly communicated if the suspended sentence is to be revocable.
Lastly, aside from suspended sentences, courts have the general authority to postpone the imposition of sentences. This form of suspension can arise in various contexts. For example, Maryland has held that it is reasonable for courts to suspend the sentencing of a convicted defendant where more time is needed for additional investigations prior to the convicted defendant's sentencing hearing. In addition, Kentucky has held that, because a convicted defendant must be competent to be sentenced, postponement in sentencing may be allowed to allow for investigations to determine whether the convicted individual is competent.
[Last updated in October of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]