What Can a Lawyer Give for Christmas? Withheld Judgment

A withheld judgment is a tool used by judges to incentivize compliance with probation terms and to allow someone to move on with his or her life after satisfactorily dealing with a mistake.


As described by legalbeagle.com:

A withheld judgment can allow the defendant to avoid a having a criminal conviction on his record. At the time of sentencing, the judge informs the defendant of the terms he must meet, which can include a probationary period, restitution fees paid to the court and victim, and rarely, jail time. The judge does not, however, enter the conviction as a judgment. If the defendant successfully completes all the terms of his probation and other sentencing requirements, the case is closed without entry of the judgment and the defendant's record remains clear. If, however, the defendant violates his probation terms, the court enters the original judgment and the conviction becomes a part of the defendant's permanent record.

In Idaho, withheld judgments are governed by Rule 33(d) of the Idaho Criminal Rules and  Rule 10 of the Idaho Misdemeanor Criminal Rules.  Judges are given a broad range of required considerations and must include specific terms of probation when applying a withheld judgment. The rules also essentially say that, barring some extraordinary circumstance, withheld judgment is a one time option. Substantively, withheld judgment is written into the state’s criminal code under Idaho Code §§ 19-2601 and 2604. Probational reporting is required. See Idaho Code § 19-2606.

In a broader sense, withheld judgement is based in a policy interest of applying mercy to people who admit to committing a crime and verifiably show an intent not to recommit the error. It is not necessarily mercy from the punishment itself, but rather mercy from the ongoing stigma of a past punishment once the offender has shown through probation compliance a willingness to change. 

As lawyers, it is easy sometimes to walk out of a courtroom wearing an invisible black robe. When people come to us to solve their problems, a personal sentencing of sorts can quickly occur internally. “Well, why did you do that?” “What is wrong with your priorities?” “How dumb can you get?” The list can go on. Natural outcroppings of the candor caused by our profession’s sacred confidentiality. Reconciling clients with reality is not necessarily a bad thing but learning to question those gut reactions can do two very powerful things.

1. Withholding judgment on a professional level can create stronger and more trusting attorney/client relationships.

Joe DeBonis of the University of New Mexico explained it like this:

In order to preserve quality relationships, it helps if we challenge our assumptions and slow down the process when we are presented with what we perceive to be a questionable situation. Remaining open and curious and asking questions, rather than reacting with a judgmental statement, is an important part of what focusing on relationships is about.

2. Withholding judgment on a personal level might just make you a whole lot happier.

I have always had a hard time with the idea of creating “awareness” for something (maybe because I’m a little jealous that I did not invent those magnetic awareness ribbons people put on their cars) but part of the practice of mindfulness is becoming aware of the judgments we make all the time. As Dr. Elisha Goldstein stated:

The reason non-judgment is used is because left alone, the brain will automatically judge things as good or bad, right or wrong, fair or unfair, important or unimportant, urgent or non-urgent and so on. This happens so fast that our experiences are automatically colored right when we get to them, so mindfulness is about being aware of that and taking a fresh perspective.

When we are empowered to choose in a situation, judgment is a good and important part of life. When we have no control in a situation, say regarding another human being’s decisions, the empowerment there can come from withholding judgment. The whole giving someone “the benefit of the doubt” thing. A realization that your job on a basic level as a human is not to note the flaws in how everyone else does their job but instead do the best you can with what you have. I think this concept is perhaps most applicable to the legal community who is taught from day one to “issue spot.” 

If anything, withholding judgment is a gift that you can freely give while likely receiving much more in return.