What is Deferred Adjudication?

Deferred sentencing is a prosecutor’s agreement in the United States trial law that allows certain criminal defendants to avoid the chance of sentencing in exchange for a stipulated prayer and supervised probation. When a court offers a defendant a suspended sentence, the court is basically offering the person a way to delay formal judgment by admitting to the crime, then participating in probation. If the defendant fails to live up to the terms of probation, the trial will begin; if the defendant succeeds, the trial is canceled and the defendant does not receive a criminal record. Not all US states allow deferred sentencing, and those who have very different standards about what types of crimes qualify for deferral, what type of probation is appropriate, and whether deferral records are published, among other things.

Deferred judgment is authorized by a state’s statutory code and is offered at the discretion of the court, usually with the recommendation of the prosecutor. Although the terms of the offer vary based on state law and the court’s assessment of each case, most deferments are offered first-time offenders of several minor crimes such as shoplifting, driving under the influence, and possession of drugs. Deferments are usually offered when the Court believes the accused’s criminal behavior was a one-time event that is unlikely to be repeated and can be corrected with probation. Probation time can range from community service to participation in drug and alcohol treatment programs, and always carries the requirement that the defendant not be arrested again.

An accused who is offered a deferred sentence need not accept it and, as with all things, there are advantages and disadvantages associated with either decision. A reprieve can be positive for a defendant who believes he will be sentenced if the case goes to trial. Deferred sentencing essentially puts the court’s conviction on hold and, provided that the defendant completes the terms of probation, conviction will never adhere.

On the other hand, deferral in all jurisdictions requires the defendant to admit either “guilty” or “no contest”, which is a tacit admission of guilt. These pleas can prove harmful to the defendant in some cases. Many academic study programs, jobs, and volunteer work, for example, ask applicants not only if they have ever been convicted, but whether they have ever pleaded guilty to any crime. The deferred assessment defendant had to answer “yes”.

Registration of the accused’s arrest, prayer, and postponement of the election may also become public. Some states will automatically expunge records of the proceedings once a defendant completes probation, but some require the records to be published, at least for a certain amount of time. Still other states allow for expungement, but only if certain petitions are filed.

Deferred sentencing can bring significant benefits to both the defendant and the court. What precise assessment will require or convey cannot be answered without a study of local law, however, and there are no universal rules for how deferments must be presented or applied. Defendants wondering if their cases are eligible for deferred sentencing, or deciding to accept an offer of postponement, should contact a lawyer familiar with the laws of the court’s jurisdiction.

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