Suspended Prison Sentences

What is a suspended prison sentence and what does it mean?

A suspended prison sentence is the term given to a prison sentence imposed by the court, and then suspended (ie ‘delayed’). The court may decide to delay the prison sentence to allow the defendant a period of probation, or to undertake treatment for an addiction, or to meets conditions in the community.

If the defendant breaches the terms of the suspended sentence, or commits another offence, they are likely to be sent to prison to serve the original prison term imposed. A suspended sentence may be accompanied by a fine, but the court cannot impose a community sentence at the same time as suspending a prison sentence.

When can a suspended sentence be imposed?

On conviction of an offence punishable by a term of imprisonment, the court may impose a prison sentence where the so-called ‘custody threshold test’ has been passed. Where the court imposes a prison sentence of between 14 days and two years (or 6 months in the Magistrates’ Court), it can suspend the sentence for up to two years. Where the court imposes consecutive sentences for two or more offences, the power to suspend can only be exercised if the aggregate of the terms does not exceed two years (6 months in the Magistrates’ Court).

Once the court has decided a prison sentence is appropriate, it must then consider whether it should and can suspend it. If so, it can suspend the sentence (or aggregate of sentences) for between six months and two years. This is known as the operational period.

Prison sentences may also be suspended where young people over 18 are sentenced to detention in a young offender institution.

What is the effect of suspending a sentence?

If a judge decides to impose a suspended sentence, the defendant must comply with the requirements imposed during the suspension period (which must not be longer than the operational period). The terms of the suspension period may require the defendant to undergo any of the following:

  • unpaid work requirement
  • activity requirement
  • programme requirement
  • prohibited activity requirement
  • curfew requirement
  • exclusion requirement
  • residence requirement
  • mental health requirement
  • drug rehabilitation requirement
  • alcohol treatment requirement
  • supervision requirement
  • attendance centre requirement (where the offender is aged 25 or under)

What is the effect of breaching a suspended prison sentence?

If the defendant commits a further criminal offence during the operational period, it is likely the prison term must then be served.

If the defendant breaches the terms of the suspended sentence, or otherwise fails to comply with its terms – the custodial term is likely to be activated. In fact, there is a presumption that the suspended prison term will be activated in full or in part where the terms are breached, unless it is unjust.

Alternatively, the court can:

a. make any community requirements originally imposed more onerous
b. extend the supervision period (where community requirements were imposed)
c. extend the operational period (but not beyond two years from the date when the original order was made)

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

Normally, the Crown Court deals with all breaches of suspended sentences irrespective of where the sentence was passed. The Magistrates’ Court can only deal with such breaches if the sentence was passed in the Magistrates’. However, it can commit the case to the Crown Court if its powers to deal with the defendant are considered inadequate.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.