Sentencing basics

What is a sentence?

A sentence is the punishment a judge or magistrate decides should be given to someone who has been convicted of a crime.

It comes at the end of a prosecution. After a crime occurs, and the police arrest and charge someone, the Crown Prosecution Service decides whether to take them to court.

If they are prosecuted and either plead guilty or are found guilty by magistrates, or for more serious offences, a jury of members of the public, they are then sentenced.

The judge or magistrates look at the facts of the case and decides what the most appropriate sentence would be, based on the harm done to the victim and how blameworthy the offender is. The sentence imposed on an offender should reflect the crime they have committed and be proportionate to the seriousness of the offence. It is up to the judge or magistrates to decide how much weight to give each factor in the case they are dealing with.

What are sentences for?

There are five things sentencing sets out to do when dealing with the vast majority of adult offenders. While punishing the offender for the crime committed is one of the purposes, there are other important aims, like preventing crime happening in the future so more people don’t become victims of the same offender.

A sentence aims to:

  • Punish the offender this can include going to prison, doing unpaid work in the community, obeying a curfew or paying a fine.
  • Reduce crimeby preventing the offender from committing more crime and putting others off from committing similar offences.
  • Reform and rehabilitate offenderschanging an offender’s behaviour to prevent future crime for example by requiring an offender to have treatment for drug addiction or alcohol abuse.
  • Protect the publicfrom the offender and from the risk of more crimes being committed by them. This could be by putting them in prison, restricting their activities or supervision by probation.
  • Make the offender give something back for example, by the payment of compensation or through restorative justice. Restorative justice gives victims the chance to tell offenders about the impact of their crime and get an apology.