Suspended Sentences (NT)
In the Northern Territory, when someone is found guilty of a criminal offence, one of the sentencing orders that a court can make is a term of imprisonment, which is then suspended for a designated period of time. The person is not required to serve the time that has been suspended unless they breach the terms of the suspended sentence. This is intended to act as an incentive to avoid reoffending and allows the person to continue to live in the community, work and fulfil their responsibilities to their family.
When an adult is sentenced in the NT, they are sentenced under the Sentencing Act 1995. Section 40 of that act allows a court to suspend a term of imprisonment under certain circumstances.
A court can impose a suspended term of imprisonment if:
- It is appropriate to do so;
- The term does not exceed five years;
- The offending warranted a term of imprisonment (even if the term were not ordered to be suspended).
A term of imprisonment may be suspended in whole or in part.
When a person under the age of 18 is sentenced in the NT, they are sentenced under the Youth Justice Act 2005. Under section 98 of that act, a court may suspend all or part of a term of detention if it considers this appropriate. The term of detention may be suspended for a period of up to two years during which the young person must not commit any further offences.
How do suspended sentences work?
When a person is sentenced to a suspended sentence, they do not have to serve the time unless a court orders them to do so. A court may order a person to serve some or all of their suspended sentence because they have committed another offence punishable by imprisonment, or because they have breached the terms of the suspended sentence in some other way.
A suspended sentence may have a range of conditions attached to it. These will be based on the circumstances of the offending and what the court considers to be risk factors for the individual. Some common conditions are participation in rehabilitation programs and not to use alcohol or drugs (where alcohol or drugs were a factor in the offending), and to report regularly to a probation and parole officer.
Breaching a suspended sentence
If a person commits an offence while on a suspended sentence, they will be charged with the new offence and will have to go through the usual court processes in relation to the new matter. If the police suspect that the new offence is a breach of a suspended sentence, they may seek a warrant for the person’s arrest.
If the person is found guilty of the new offence and it is an offence that carries a penalty of imprisonment, the court may order that they serve some or all of the suspended term of imprisonment as well as any new penalty that is imposed. However, if the court considers it would be unjust to order the person to serve the suspended sentence, it may instead extend the operational period of the suspended sentence or make no order.
The court must take a lot of factors into account when deciding how to respond to a breach. It must consider the nature and circumstances of the new offence, any special circumstances that exist, any efforts the person has made towards rehabilitation, the offender’s antecedents and any other relevant matters.
If the court orders the person to serve their suspended sentence they must do so immediately. If they are sentenced to a term of imprisonment for the new offending, the two terms will be served concurrently.
When can a person not receive a suspended sentence?
A suspended sentence can only be imposed in the NT if the term of imprisonment is five years or less. This means that very serious offences are unlikely to be dealt with by way of a suspended sentence.
Some offences in the NT carry mandatory minimum periods of imprisonment. For example, a person found guilty of murder must receive a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 20 years. A person found guilty of murder could therefore never be dealt with by way of a suspended sentence.
Research shows that suspended sentences are an effective deterrent and that offenders placed on them are less likely to re-offend than those sentenced to actual jail. People who are sent to jail often have trouble reintegrating into the community and a suspended sentence avoids the need for this adjustment to be made after the sentence has been completed.
However, suspended sentences are sometimes criticised by members of the public and thought to be a soft option that does not adequately punish serious offenders. They are also sometimes criticised for ‘setting a person up to fail’ as some offenders may find it difficult to comply with the conditions imposed and may find themselves in prison anyway.
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