Disposition vs. Sentencing

In the process of conducting a criminal background check for potential hires, you may run across terms that aren’t part of your regular vocabulary. Is there a difference between being acquitted vs. not guilty? What do the words “disposition” and “sentencing” mean? What other disposition terms are important to know?

Here’s a closer look at what disposition and sentencing mean, how they could impact your background check review process, and how to make informed decisions while following employment laws.

Understanding the information that’s revealed in a criminal background check can be critical for hiring managers. It’s what enables you to make informed choices about the people you hire—to minimize risk, safeguard your assets and employees, and protect your organization’s reputation. 

Both disposition and sentencing relate to the outcome of a legal case, but each term refers to a different aspect of the process. To help you make the best hiring decisions and adhere to fair hiring practices, let’s break down what disposition and sentencing mean, and discuss how the information related to disposition and sentencing might impact your background check review process.

What Does Disposition Mean?

In the simplest terms, a disposition is a court’s final determination in a criminal charge. On a criminal background report, disposition may refer to the current status of an arrest or the final outcome of an interaction with the court in relation to a criminal matter. For example, was the person tried in court and found guilty, not guilty, or was the case dismissed?

When running a criminal background check on a candidate you’re considering for a job, dispositions give you a high-level view of any convictions, non-convictions, and pending cases that may be relevant to the position. 

Here are a few common terms you might come across when reviewing dispositions, along with their meanings:

Convicted: The person has been found guilty or has pleaded guilty.

Deferred Adjudication or Diversion: A court has deferred judgment, typically as part of a plea agreement, to give the defendant the chance to meet requirements such as drug and alcohol treatment, probation, or community service, in order to have their case reconsidered and possibly dismissed. 

Acquitted: The person has been found not guilty. As for the difference between being acquitted vs. not guilty, the terms “acquitted” and “not guilty” are often used interchangeably. Being found “not guilty” is not a determination of innocence. A person may be found “not guilty” because there was not enough evidence for a conviction. An acquittal may also happen when a judge or appeals court decides there is not enough evidence to go to trial.

Charges Dismissed: A prosecutor or judge has dropped charges against the person—the case did not move forward.

No Charges Filed: The person has been accused or arrested for a crime but a prosecutor has decided they will not move forward with a case.

Sentence Vacated: A guilty plea or guilty verdict has been set aside. When a sentence is vacated, the guilty verdict is erased as if the person had never been convicted of the crime.

Pending: The case against this person is ongoing. They are still under investigation or subject to prosecution.

Suspended Sentence: The person’s sentencing has been delayed, often because they have been offered a chance to complete probation, community service, or a treatment program.

As you can see, these terms don’t necessarily reveal whether the person in question was pleading guilty vs. not guilty in court—only the final outcome of the case. 

If you’re wondering, what does court disposition mean? And what does disposition of the offense mean? These are other disposition terms that may be used on a background check, but have a similar meaning. Dispositions always relate to a specific offense. For example, an individual can be charged with three offenses in the same criminal proceeding, and have two of them be dismissed and the other one be a conviction.

What About Sentencing?

Sentencing is the legal consequence of a conviction. To understand the difference between disposition vs. sentencing, think of disposition as the indication of a crime (or the absence of it) and sentencing as the punishment. Sentencing doesn’t apply to every disposition: Clearly, if a case is acquitted or dismissed—and the person is not found guilty—sentencing does not apply.

As far as what shows up on a criminal background check, sentencing information may not be clear at first glance. In some cases, a report will clearly show the sentence date and term. In others, you may not see the sentence given. However, using the date of disposition, you should be able to review a candidate’s history of incarceration and match the sentence to the disposition and offense.

A criminal background check will also reveal any pending cases. Keep in mind that the disposition will change in a pending case if the person is convicted or acquitted in the future and a final disposition is made. The same applies to dispositions with suspended or delayed sentencing. If the person fails to comply with the terms of their probation or treatment program, for example, they may be subject to sentencing in the future.

What Disposition Means On A Criminal Background Check

Ultimately, what do dispositions mean on a criminal background check? For prospective employers, the information revealed in dispositions may have a significant impact on hiring decisions. If a report shows that a candidate has a serious conviction—or even multiple convictions—the perceived risk in hiring them may rise substantially. Additionally, the outcome of a “pending disposition” could affect a candidate’s ability to do a job in the future.

It’s important to note that criminal records and their resulting dispositions may only appear on a candidate’s criminal background check report for a limited time. While felonies and misdemeanors may continue showing up on a person’s record permanently in some states, other states limit this reporting to seven years for felonies, and five or seven years for misdemeanors. Infractions are limited to seven years under federal law. Depending on the types of searches ordered, a criminal background report may contain results from national, federal, state and county databases.

It’s a common misconception that a non-conviction means that a person will not have a criminal record on their background check report. A non-conviction in relation to a criminal matter in the court will always result in a criminal record and may appear on a background check for up to seven years; however, the disposition, or outcome of interaction with the court, is what’s important to understand. 

Background Checks & Compliance

To help employers comply with guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and with state laws that restrict the use of arrest records in employment screening, some background check providers, including GoodHire, do not report non-convictions on background check results. (However, GoodHire does report pending cases and convictions that are deemed reportable under federal and state laws to ensure employers are aware of the candidate’s criminal records.)

Because a candidate’s criminal history is sensitive information, it’s important to understand how to read a background check and handle the process with care. In order to run a criminal background check, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires employers to obtain written consent from the candidate, and follow the adverse action process if they decide to decline a candidate based on the results of information found in a background screening. 

Hiring practices must be consistent and non-discriminatory, and should be clearly outlined in your company’s hiring policy. EEOC guidance suggests delaying background checks and records-related inquiries until after making a conditional offer of employment. The EEOC also offers the following guidelines—sometimes called “Green factors” after the case Green vs. Missouri Pacific Railroad—to guide your consideration of a candidate’s criminal background:

  • The nature and gravity of the offense
  • The time elapsed since the offense
  • The nature of the job sought

Get Comprehensive Criminal Background Checks With GoodHire

Making decisions based on accurate, up-to-date information on a candidate’s criminal background can help you minimize risk and ensure a more secure workplace for your organization’s employees and customers. GoodHire’s criminal background checks show felony convictions, misdemeanors, active warrants, and infractions, as well as appearance in sex offender registries.

Working with an accredited employment screening provider like GoodHire can help you access comprehensive criminal background information that is relevant to the position you’re hiring for—including any past or current dispositions and sentences.


The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.

About the Author

Gayle writes about GoodHire’s screening services to inform employers about background check best practices.

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