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What is a Split Sentence?

By Charity Delich
Updated May 16, 2024
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In criminal law, a court may be permitted to hand down a split sentence when imposing punishment on a defendant. Typically, this means that, while the defendant is ordered to spend mandatory time in jail, he or she isn’t incarcerated for the entire sentence. Rather, the court ordinarily suspends part of the sentence and places the defendant on probation for the remaining time. This has the effect of the defendant serving a relatively short period of time in jail — often between 30 and 90 days — with the rest of his or her sentence spent on probation.

During the probationary period, the defendant may be required to complete a number of tasks, like meeting with a probation officer, completing a drug or alcohol treatment program, or performing community service. The defendant may also be ordered to refrain from engaging in certain behaviors, such as consuming alcohol, driving a car, or committing another crime. In cases involving drugs or alcohol, the defendant may be ordered to enroll in an electronic monitoring program during the probationary period. If the defendant violates the terms of his or her probation, the court can end the probationary period and order the defendant to return to jail to serve the remainder of his or her suspended sentence.

A split sentence is often reserved for someone who is a first time offender or someone who has committed a lesser offense. As a general rule, statutes dictate whether split sentencing is permissible for a particular crime. A judge may have broad discretion in choosing whether to grant split sentencing, depending on the jurisdiction.

The concept of a split sentence is often used interchangeably with the notion of shock probation. The two ideas are similar in that the defendant first serves mandatory time in jail before being placed on probation. With shock probation, however, the defendant re-appears before the judge after he or she serves jail time, and the judge then re-sentences him or her to probation. On the other hand, a defendant generally doesn’t re-appear before the judge with a split sentence and is simply automatically placed on probation following incarceration.

A reverse split sentence is the opposite of traditional split sentencing. Although it’s less common, it is used in some jurisdictions. With a reverse sentence, the defendant is generally put on probation first. Following that, he or she is incarcerated for the remainder of his or her sentence.

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Discussion Comments
By B707 — On Jun 09, 2011

@Clairdelune -Yes - I'm also in favor of using the split sentences, especially in cases of young adults, whose crimes are fairly minor without violence connected with a gun or knife.

I just don't think that prison is the right place for a young, first time offender. It doesn't take very long for someone to be corrupted by the prison population or have to endure mistreatment or ridicule.

As far as costs go, it couldn't possibly cost any more to monitor their behavior, send them to classes or supervise volunteer work.

By Clairdelune — On Jun 07, 2011

I like the idea of a split sentence especially for first time offenders and minor offenses. It makes a lot of sense for several reasons. Prisons are really rough places and the longer someone is in there, the more likely they may become hardened and re-offend when they get out.

Being held accountable for doing community service, taking classes to help rehabilitate the offender, or being monitored in his activities.

This seems like a much better idea for the offender's good, and for avoiding crowded prisons - much better than letting hardened criminals out of prison early.

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