What is a split sentence?

A split sentence is when the criminal verdict is split into two parts: 1) the first is jail sentence, and 2) the second may be probation. Eligibility for a split sentence depends on the criminal codes in your state laws. Split sentences are not always in a defendant’s best interest because they may not receive good time credit that could reduce their sentence. Consult with an attorney to see if a split sentence is best for your situation.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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A split sentence is where the sentence is split into two parts, the first is served by incarceration and the second may be probation. . Whether because of jail overcrowding or progressive theories about sentencing, many states use a number of alternatives to extended prison sentences such as split sentencing. A defendant should understand how a split sentence works, who is eligible to receive a split sentence, and the potential consequences.

What is a Split Sentence?

A split sentence occurs when the defendant is placed on probation for a period of time after serving a portion of the time in jail or prison. In other words, the sentence is split up into two parts. The ratio of how much time will be served on probation and how much will be served in prison is frequently left up to a judge’s discretion.

However, some states do impose specific guidelines for determining the split. In Alabama, for example, if a defendant’s overall sentence is less than 15 years, then the trial judge may order no more than three years of the sentence to be served in prison. If the overall sentence is between 15 and 20 years, the maximum period of imprisonment is five years. After completion of the prison time, a defendant is released on probation for the balance of the term. A defendant will be allowed to remain on probation as long as he follows the terms and conditions of the probation. The main advantage of a split sentence is that it reduces the amount of time that a defendant must actually serve in prison. However, not all defendants are eligible for split sentences.

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Who is Eligible for a Split Sentence?

Eligibility for a split sentence depends on the criminal codes in a defendant’s sentencing state. Again using Alabama as an example, a defendant convicted of a sex offense involving a child is automatically disqualified from obtaining a split sentence. Others can be disqualified because of their criminal history. A defendant sentenced to a term of more than 20 years is not eligible for a split sentence because of the length of the sentence.

Each state has a set of rules and guidelines governing who is qualified to receive a split sentence. A defendant who does qualify for a split sentence should understand and carefully weigh sentencing options before asking or making a plea bargain for a split sentence.

Consequences of a Split Sentence

A split sentence has consequences and responsibilities that any defendant must be prepared to handle. First, depending on the laws of the state, a defendant serving a split sentence may or may not receive good time credit while he is serving the jail time portion of the sentence.

If a defendant must serve five years of a five-year sentence, he may want to plea bargain for a higher regular sentence that offers a better rate of good time credit, and the prospect of earlier discharge from prison.

A second consequence is the inconvenience of probation. After being released from prison, a defendant will be expected to comply with multiple conditions of community supervision.

All of the same terms, conditions, and inconveniences of a regular probation condition can be imposed on any defendant in a split sentence. Because of the number of conditions, many defendants are better off just completing their time to avoid being subject to monitoring and having their probation revoked.

A third consequence depends on how a state treats revocations of split sentence probation. Some states only have one type of split sentence. Others have different types of split sentences. Florida, for example, utilizes three types of split sentences: a true split sentence, a Villery Sentence, and a Probation Split. Under a true split sentence, if a defendant violates the terms and conditions of probation, the sentence could be revoked and the defendant sent back to prison for a period of time not to exceed the balance of the suspended sentence. If a defendant’s probation is revoked on the other types of split sentences, the judge could sentence a defendant up to the full range of the original sentence with no credit for the time served on probation.

A fourth consequence is called stacking. If a defendant is sentenced for two different cases on the same day by the same judge, then some states will require the sentences to be stacked absent a specific order by the judge otherwise. A defendant may actually serve less time where a plea bargain permits the sentences to run at the same time.

A fifth, but still very important consequence, is that most states will consider a defendant a convicted felon, even when part of the sentence was suspended.  In addition, some defendants assume that their suspended status while on probation permits them to carry a firearm, when the state actually prohibits them from carrying firearms.

Getting Help

A split sentence can be a useful tool to help a defendant obtain a reduction in a prison sentence. However, before accepting a split sentence, a defendant should consult with a criminal defense attorney to compare the advantages of a regular sentence to those of a split sentence.

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