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When is a Prison Sentence Suspended and What Does this mean?  

At the time of sentencing depending on the offence itself and its seriousness, according to the particular facts of the case including mitigating and aggravating circumstances there are different options in terms of sentence. In hierarchy starting from the lowest those are discharges in turn absolute or conditional, fines, community orders or custodial sentences.

There are different thresholds that have to be passed in order to move upward to the most severe category - custody. The most demanding is the custodial threshold which is passed when the trial judge considers that no other punishment will be appropriate in the circumstances to achieve the objectives of the criminal justice system to punish, rehabilitate and prevent re-offending.

When can a suspended sentence be imposed?

Whenever the custody threshold is passed and the judge considers imposing a sentence of a term not less than 14 days and not more than 12 months imprisonment, the judge may suspend the sentence. In case the sentence is passed in the Magistratesí Court the minimum period is the same but the maximum is 6 months in accordance with the sentencing powers available to that court.

When a court is passing consecutive sentences for two or more offences the power to suspend can only be exercised if the aggregate of the terms does not exceed 12 months or 6 months if the case is heard in the Magistratesí Court.

Suspended sentence can be passed in respect to sentence of imprisonment for those over 21 but also in respect of people aged 18 or over who are sentenced to detention in a young offender institution, which is the alternative of custody for young offenders.

What is the effect of suspending a sentence? 

If a judge decides to impose a suspended sentence, he must set a period of suspension also known as the operational period. That period could in turn be between six months and two years.

For example, suspended sentences read like the following: 11 months suspended sentence for two years. This in turn means that in the two years for which the sentence is suspended, the custodial term could be activated by further offending or non-compliance with other order by the judge.

At the same time as passing a suspended sentence the court may impose on the offender to comply with certain requirements for the duration of a supervision period. The supervision period must not be longer than the operational period. Those requirements are: 

It is also a common practice for suspended sentences to be coupled with a fine. However, a court may not impose a community sentence at the same time of passing a suspended sentence.

Whenever a judge is to pass a suspended sentence, he must say so in open court and further explain the terms to the Defendant, including an explanation of the supervision and operation periods and the effect of non-compliance.

What is the effect of breach of such sentence?

Commission of an offence while the offender is serving a suspended sentence will implement the suspended sentence. In addition, failure to carry out a requirement, imposed by the court on the offender as a condition, would make the offender in breach of a court order and therefore would as well activate the custodial term of the sentence.

Whenever a suspended sentence is breached the court has three options. Firstly, the court has the power to order the offender to serve the custodial term as defined by the sentence. Within the courtís powers is also to order imprisonment to take effect with a lesser term but not shorter than 14 days. In general whenever a sentence is breached there is a presumption that the suspended prison sentence will be activated in accordance with one of those two options above. Therefore, the third one is exercised rarely where the court considers that activating the sentence would be unjust. 

Thirdly, there is the option of the order to be amended imposing more onerous community requirements or extending the supervision or operational periods. However, the restriction could not be for more than two years or such that the supervision period ends later than the operational period. 

Which court can deal with a breach of a suspended sentence?

As a general rule the Crown Court can deal with all breaches of suspended sentences irrespective of where the sentence was passed. On the other hand, the Magistratesí Court can only deal with offenders breaching the conditions if the sentence was passed in the Magistratesí. However, they also have the option of committing the case to be dealt with in the Crown Court if their powers to deal with the offender are considered inadequate.

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