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Why sentences are imposed

Sentences are given to: Magistrates sentencing

  • punish offenders
  • protect the public
  • change an offender's behaviour
  • ensure offenders do something to make up for their crime
  • reduce crime in the future

When magistrates or judges impose a sentence on someone found guilty of a crime, they will take into account:

  • the type of crime and how serious it is
  • the law and sentencing guidelines
  • if the offender admits their guilt
  • the offender's criminal history
  • the offender's personal and financial circumstances

How sentences are worked out

Magistrates and judges make their sentencing decisions independently of government. They use guidelines when working out the appropriate sentence for each case. How offenders are sentenced in England and Wales (By: The Sentencing Council)

Sentencing guidelines are produced by an independent organisation, the Sentencing Council, to aid with the consistency of sentencing across England and Wales. They provide the range of sentences that could be given for particular types of crime.

The magistrate or judge decides how serious a crime is by looking at:

  • the harm it caused to victims or to the wider community
  • why it happened, for example, was it planned?

Different offenders may not be given the same sentence for the same type of crime, as magistrates and judges look at the circumstances of each case and each offender.

For example, a harsher sentence may be given if it's not an offender's first offence. Or a reduced sentence may be given if the offender admits their guilt at an early stage.

'To find out about sentencing guidelines on the Sentencing Council website.

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Types of sentence

When someone is sentenced, they can get one of four main types of sentence:

  • discharge
  • fine
  • community sentence
  • prison sentence


When the court decides someone is guilty, but decides not to punish them further at this time, they will be given a 'discharge'.

Discharges are given for minor offences.

There are two types of discharge:

  • an 'absolute discharge' means that no more action will be taken
  • a 'conditional discharge' means that the offender won't be punished - unless they commit another offence within a set period of time


Fines are the most common criminal sentence. They're usually given for less serious crimes that don't merit a community or prison sentence.

Fines are given to punish an offender financially. They limit the amount of money offenders have to spend. Fines are given for offences like:

  • driving and road traffic offences, like speeding
  • minor offences of theft or criminal damage
  • not having a TV licence

How much someone is fined depends on:

  • how serious a crime is
  • the offender's ability to pay

If the offence causes harm to a victim, the offender can also be required to make a compensation payment. They'll also have to pay towards the cost of the court hearing.

If someone says they can't pay a fine straight away, they can ask the court if they can pay in instalments. The court may or may not agree to this.

If someone doesn't pay a fine, the court can get payment in other ways.

These include:

  • further court hearings
  • clamping and possibly selling an offender's car
  • taking money directly from an offender's wages or benefits
  • bailiffs coming to an offender's home to seize possessions

In extreme cases where a person continues to not pay their fine, they may be sent to prison.

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Community sentences

When a court imposes a community sentence, the offender doesn't go to prison. But the court says there are specific things the offender can, can't and must do.

Community sentences place 'requirements' on offenders that they must meet while serving their sentences.

The magistrate or judge will decide which combination of these 'requirements' will most effectively punish the offender for their crime, while also reducing the risk of them offending again.

Community sentences are designed to make sure the reasons for the offence are addressed - and prevent more offences in the future.

In many cases, offenders have to do unpaid work in the community, to repay their neighbourhood for their crimes. This is called 'Community Payback'.

Offenders who get community sentences can be ordered to:

  • carry out between 40 and 300 hours unpaid work as 'Community Payback'; this requires them to work hard and lose much of their free time
  • get training so they can find a job
  • complete a treatment programme - to deal with anger control, drug or alcohol abuse, for example
  • avoid specific activities, like visiting pubs or football matches
  • live within a curfew that restricts the times they can leave their homes, monitored by wearing an electronic tag
  • live at a specific place
  • get mental health treatment, if they agree
  • have regular meetings with a probation officer to check their progress
  • go to an attendance centre, where 18 to 24 year-olds take part in group activities to help them live responsibly in the community

A magistrate or judge can order an offender to carry out as many of these as they believe suitable, dependent on the type of crime the offender committed and their previous history.

If an offender doesn't meet the terms of their community sentence, they can be sent back to court and given an additional punishment. In some cases they are sentenced to prison.

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Prison sentences

Prison sentences are given when an offence is so serious that it is the only suitable punishment.

A prison sentence will also be given when the court believes the public must be protected from the offender.

There are three different types of prison sentence:

  • Suspended sentences
  • Determinate sentences
  • Indeterminate sentences (including life sentences)
Suspended sentences

A court may give an offender a 'suspended' prison sentence if the time they would otherwise spend in prison is under 12 months.

With a suspended sentence, the offender doesn't go directly to prison - but they do have to meet conditions in the community, set by the court.

For example, the offender on a suspended sentence may have to:

  • live within a curfew, which restricts the times they can go outside
  • do unpaid work for the community (called Community Payback)
  • be supervised by a probation officer
  • stay away from certain places or areas
  • have treatment for drug, alcohol or mental health problems.

These conditions can last for up to two years. If the offender breaks these conditions, or commits another offence, they will usually have to serve the original sentence in prison.

Determinate sentences

If a court fixes the length of a prison sentence, it's called a 'determinate' sentence. For example, a judge may say an offender is sentenced to six years.You be the Judge

When an offender is given a determinate sentence, half of the sentence is served in custody and half of the sentence in the community.

Offenders sentenced to 12 months or longer in prison will be put on licence when they are serving the second part of their sentence. This licence is supervised by the Probation Service and includes conditions that offenders must meet, like not having contact with victims. If the offender doesn't meet the terms of their licence, they might have to go back to prison for the rest of their sentence.

Offenders sentenced to less than 12 months also serve the second half in the community but are not actively supervised by Probation.

If offenders commit another offence while they're serving the second half of their sentence, they may be sent back to prison. They will also be punished for the new offence. So offenders given determinate sentences always have to complete their full sentence. But half of it is in prison, and half of it is outside prison.

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Indeterminate sentences

A court can give a sentence setting the minimum time the offender must spend in prison - but not an end point. This is called an 'indeterminate' sentence.

For example, a judge may say an offender must go to prison 'for a minimum of ten years'. This minimum period set by the judge is called a 'tariff'.

These sentences are usually given for violent and sexual offences and where the court thinks the offender is a risk to the public.

If an offender is given an indeterminate sentence, they have no automatic right to be released. They will always serve the 'minimum' sentence set by the court.

When the minimum time in prison is over, an independent body (the Parole Board) will decide if it is safe to release an offender.

If they think it is, the offender will be released under 'licence'. This will mean that there are specific conditions they will have to follow when they leave prison.

Once they are released, they will be checked by the Probation Service to make sure they are meeting the conditions of the licence.

But if the Parole Board thinks an offender is still a risk to the public, they will remain in prison. Some may never be released.

Life sentences

A life sentence means the offender will be subject to specific conditions for the rest of their life. But only one of these conditions may be a period of time in prison.

For most life sentences, the judge sets a minimum time the offender will spend in prison before being considered for release on licence by the independent Parole Board, who assess whether it's safe for the offender to be released.

If an offender is released on licence, they'll be under the supervision of the Probation Service and will have to follow specific rules.

Offenders given life sentences stay under licence for the rest of their life. If they break the terms of their licence at any time, they will be called back to prison.

But in some very serious cases, a judge may give an offender a 'whole life term'.

This means that there is no minimum term set by the judge, and the offender will never be released.

Life sentences must be given to offenders who are found guilty of murder. A judge may also choose to give a life sentence for serious offences, where the law allows, for example manslaughter, rape, armed robbery or arson.

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Crimes that don't go to court

Not all crimes go to court for sentencing.

For example, some first-time offences and less serious crimes may be dealt with by the police or a local authority. These are called 'out-of-court disposals'.

In these cases, a - where a fixed amount of money must be paid - may be given. Crimes that could be dealt with outside court include:

  • parking offences
  • travelling on public transport without a ticket
  • behaving badly in public

If an offender gets into more trouble or doesn't pay a fixed penalty notice, they may be dealt with by a court.

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How prisons work

A prison sentence is designed to do three things:

  • punishes offenders for their crime by taking away their freedom
  • gives offenders an opportunity to learn new skills or change their behaviour so there's less chance of them offending again
  • protect the public from the most serious or frequent offenders

Life in prison

Anyone who has been sentenced to prison, and anyone held on remand waiting for a trial, will have fewer rights than law-abiding citizens.

Whilst offenders are in prison, they can keep some personal items in their cell, but the amount and nature of the items are limited.

They can also have a radio and television provided their behaviour warrants it, but prison staff will regularly check that prisoners don't have too many personal items or any that are banned.

Depending on the rules of the specific prison, prisoners may also be allowed to keep things like:

  • watches
  • wedding rings or plain rings
  • photos and pictures
  • address books, stamps and envelopes

Friends and family can send offenders money orders while they're in prison - but the amount of money that can be spent is limited and will be affected by their behaviour in prison.

There are strict rules about offenders' behaviour in prison. If an offender breaks these rules, they can be punished by the prison's senior manager. For more serious offences, an independent authority, such as a judge, will decide on a punishment.

In more serious cases, where the offence is believed to be criminal, offenders can be prosecuted in court.

While people are held in custody, the prison will do all it can to help them to gain job skills, work experience and qualifications.

This is designed to help prisoners find work or educational opportunities when they are released, and help prevent them from committing further crimes.

Many different types of work are available. These vary from one prison to the next, but can include:

  • woodwork
  • engineering
  • industrial cleaning
  • bricklaying
  • painting and decorating

The National Health Service is responsible for providing prison healthcare. Prisoners are entitled to receive the same level of medical care as they would get outside of prison.

If the prison doesn't have the specific health facilities required, the offender may be moved to another prison or hospital where they can receive the correct treatment.

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How probation works

Offenders are put under the supervision of the Probation Service when:

  • a judge or magistrate imposes a community sentence
  • they are released from prison on licence

The offender must not break the rules and requirements of their community sentence or their 'licence' (the rules a prisoner agrees to when released from prison).

If they break those rules, they could be taken back to court or sent to prison.

The role of probation officers

Probation officers work with offenders on probation, and their families, to reduce the chance that they might commit more crimes.

If offenders are placed on probation, the probation officer will:

  • supervise the offender and monitor whether they're doing what they've been told
  • assess and manage the risk an offender poses to the community
  • help rehabilitate an offender by dealing with problems such as, drug and alcohol addiction, employment and housing
  • report offenders to court or recall them to prison if they are not obeying the rules or requirements

While on probation, an offender must attend regular meetings with their probation officers.

If offenders don't comply with the terms of their probation

Offenders receive warnings if they don't have a good reason for failing to show up for a meeting with a probation officer or not attending an activity ordered by a court

If they miss another meeting or activity after that, they can be sent back to court or recalled to prison, and can receive further punishment.

They may also be ordered to follow other rules, including:

  • completing alcohol and drug treatment programmes
  • permanently residing at an agreed address including Approved Premises
  • staying away from the area where the offender committed their crime
  • obeying a curfew
  • wearing an electronic tag
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