The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with common law and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (June 2013) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
A discharge is a type of sentence where no punishment is imposed, and which (arguably) vitiates the finding of guilt.
An absolute discharge is an unconditional discharge where the Court finds that a crime has technically been committed, but that any punishment of the defendant would be inappropriate, and the case is closed. In some jurisdictions, an absolute discharge means there is no conviction on the defendant's record, despite the plea of the defendant.
A conditional discharge is an order made by a criminal court whereby an offender will not be sentenced for an offence unless a further offence is committed within a stated period. Once the stated period has elapsed and no further offence is committed then the conviction may be removed from the defendant's record.
In Australia, offenders can be discharged with or without being convicted, and with or without being placed on a good behaviour bond (or other conditions). These sentencing options vary from state to state. Note that defendants can be discharged without conviction even if they plead guilty to the alleged crime.
In Canada, a conditional discharge is a sentence passed in criminal court in which an individual is found guilty of an offence but is deemed not to have been convicted. Although a discharge is not considered a conviction, a record of an absolute or conditional discharge is kept by Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) and by the charging police agency and is purged from the individual's police record after a period of time: one year in the case of an absolute discharge, three years for a conditional one. The Criminal Records Act states that, except in exceptional circumstances, if the discharge is conditional, no record may be disclosed after three years. While no conviction occurs, the offender is required to fulfill certain conditions as part of the sentence. The offender is put on probation for a period of up to three years. If the offender fails to meet the conditions of the probation, or commits another criminal offence during the probation period, they may be returned to court where the discharge is cancelled and receive a criminal conviction and sentence on the original offence, and for breach of probation.
If the conditions of the discharge are met it becomes an absolute discharge.
A court may grant a conditional or absolute discharge only for offences with no minimum penalty, and a maximum penalty of less than fourteen years.
In New Zealand, offenders can be "convicted and discharged" (gets a criminal record, but no other punishment) or "discharged without conviction" (no punishment and no criminal record). Note that defendants can be discharged without conviction even if they plead guilty to the alleged crime. This is usually done in cases where the negative impact of a conviction far outweigh the crime committed. For example, if a high-end businessman is caught in possession of a small quantity of marijuana, due to the small nature of the crime compared to the effects a conviction (even without a sentence) would have, he may be discharged without conviction.
In England and Wales, a conditional discharge is a sentence vitiating the finding of guilt, in which the offender receives no punishment provided that, in a period set by the court (not more than three years), no further offence is committed. If an offence is committed in that time, then the offender may also be re-sentenced for the offence for which a conditional discharge was given. Pursuant section 14 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000  and R v Patel  EWCA Crim 2689 the conditional discharge does not constitute a conviction unless the individual breaches the conditional discharge and is re-sentenced.
Absolute discharge is a lesser sentence imposed by a court, in which no penalty is imposed at all. Exceptionally, however, a court occasionally grants an absolute discharge for a very serious offence. (The signalman in the Thirsk rail crash, who was found guilty of manslaughter, is an example of this.) This usually signifies that while a crime may technically have been committed, the imposition of any punishment would, in the opinion of the judge or magistrates, be inappropriate.
In both cases, the passing of a discharge does not prevent the court from ordering the defendant to pay compensation to a victim, to pay a contribution towards the prosecution's costs, or to be disqualified from driving. A court may grant a discharge only if it is "inexpedient to inflict punishment", and may not do so for certain firearms offences or "three strikes" offenders. The law on discharges is set out in sections 12 to 15 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. (Note that section 14(3) does not prevent a court from disqualifying drivers.)
In 2008, 9,734 offenders were given absolute discharges (0.7% of sentences) and 87,722 offenders were given conditional discharges (6% of sentences).
In Scots law, there is no conditional discharge similar to that in England and Wales, although admonition has a similar effect with a conviction recorded although there is no punishment. However, section 246 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 provides that in dealing with cases other than where the sentence is fixed by law (e.g. murder)
Section 247 further provides that an absolute discharge shall be deemed not to be a conviction for any purpose other than the purposes of the proceedings in which the order is made and of laying it before a court as a previous conviction in subsequent proceedings for another offence, and shall in any event be disregarded for the purposes of any enactment which imposes any disqualification or disability upon convicted persons, or authorises or requires the imposition of any such disqualification or disability. However, courts can consider previous absolute discharges in the same way as they consider previous convictions.
The concept of absolute or conditional discharge does not exist, as such, in United States law. However, different jurisdictions within the United States have a variety of analogues. The most direct is the suspended sentence or sentencing to "time served", meaning time spent in custody until sentencing. Many or most states also have alternative forms of adjudication for which a defendant may apply. These measures are typically available only to first offenders facing non-felony charges, and typically exclude certain types of charges, depending on the state. Such possibilities often include a guilty plea followed by a special form of probation, upon successful completion of which the public record of the case is sealed and the offender's criminal record expunged.
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