A suspended sentence is one that has been entered into the record, but not imposed—yet. Instead, the judge gives the defendant probation, and instructs the defendant to abide by its terms and conditions. If the defendant complies with the requirements of probation, he can avoid going to jail or prison. Quite simply, a suspended sentence is a sword hanging over the defendant’s head, which will come crashing down if the defendant violates a condition of probation.
For example, a first-time burglar might receive a suspended sentence of one year in jail, suspended as long as he successfully completes a one-year term of probation. This defendant will need to check in with his probation officer and follow all other requirements of his probation. At the end of the probationary term, if he followed all of the conditions, he’ll be out from under the threat of going to jail. But if, during that period, he re-offends or otherwise doesn’t comply, the probation officer can bring him back to court for a probation revocation hearing. If the judge finds that the violation occurred, the judge can impose the suspended sentence (or some of it).