The Law Blog of Oklahoma

What is the difference between a suspended sentence and a deferred sentence?

Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2017

One of the first questions someone charged with a crime asks a criminal defense lawyer is, "Will I have to go to jail for this?" Obviously, there are a lot of factors that figure into how much, if any, jail or prison time a person will serve, but there are many instances where a person can get probation instead of incarceration. In Oklahoma, there are two ways for a defendant to serve probation instead of jail or prison: through a deferred sentence or a suspended sentence.

In some states, the terms "deferred sentence" or "deferred judgement" and "suspended sentence" are used interchangeably, but in Oklahoma, they are two separate and distinct types of case resolution.

In both a deferred sentence and a suspended sentence, the person charged with a crime is allowed to serve probation instead of going to jail or prison. However, there are many differences between these two types of sentencing, and the distinctions are important.

In a deferred sentence, a defendant pleads guilty to the charge, but instead of accepting the plea and convicting the person of the crime, a judge delays judgment and sentencing, allowing the defendant to serve probation instead. If the defendant messes up and violates probation, then the district attorney can file a motion to accelerate sentencing. This means that the judge could then revoke probation, accept the guilty plea, and sentence the now-convicted defendant to whatever the statutory penalty is for the crime. 

For example, if the person is given a five year deferred sentence for a crime that carries a possible sentence of five years in prison, then he or she faces the possibility of the full five-year prison sentence, even if he or she had already completed two years of probation before messing up.

Here is the best part of a deferred sentence: if the defendant does stick to the terms of his or her probation, at the end of the deferred sentence, his or her plea is changed from guilt to not guilty, and the judge dismisses the case. In other words, if you stick to your probation, you end up without a criminal conviction on your record.

A suspended sentence is similar in that it allows a person to serve probation instead of jail or prison, but there are some key differences.

First, a suspended sentence follows a criminal conviction. There is no delayed judgement. Instead, you are found guilty and the judge sentences you for the crime of which you were convicted.

Second, a judge may suspend all or part of the sentence. For example, if you faced 5 years in prison, the judge could suspend the entire 5 years, or he or she could order you to spend one year in behind bars with four years suspended.

Third, if you violate your probation, then the district attorney will file a motion to revoke your suspended sentence. This would mean that the judge can send you to prison for the remainder of your sentence. Unlike with a deferred sentence, you would only go to prison for the remainder of the sentence. So in the example above, if you had served two years of a 5-year suspended sentence before violating probation, you would be subject to three years in prison--not the full five years.

In general, a deferred sentence results in a longer term of probation than a suspended sentence, but it may be preferable because it does not end in conviction if the person abides by the terms and conditions of probation.

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