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29 November 2023

The Imposition guideline sets out the general principles for imposing community orders and custodial sentences, and in what circumstances a custodial sentence can be suspended.

The guideline is designed to provide guidance to courts to consider a variety of things before they sentence an offender to a community order or custodial sentence. This includes considering the seriousness of the offence, the harm caused by the offence, how culpable the offender is and any previous convictions that may warrant passing the threshold for a community or custodial sentence.

It then provides guidance on how courts should consider the offender’s circumstances when determining whether to sentence them to prison or impose a community order, and how to impose the most suitable sentence that achieves the purposes of sentencing set out in law.

The Council published the current Imposition guideline in 2017 in response to concerns that suspended custodial sentences were potentially being used as a more severe form of community order. Suspended sentences should have been reserved for offenders whose case had passed the custody threshold but were eligible and suitable for their custodial sentence to be suspended.

Community sentences

The Imposition guideline sets out the general principles courts should follow when imposing community orders. It provides a table on three levels of community order, and guidance on the 14 requirements that can be imposed on a community order (or suspended sentence order – see below).

Community orders can fulfil all the five purposes of sentencing. They can restrict the offender’s freedom while providing punishment in the community, rehabilitation for the offender, and/or ensure that the offender engages in activities that in some way seek to repair the harm they have done.

The requirements courts can impose on a community or suspended sentence include unpaid work, a rehabilitation activity requirement, curfew or a mental health treatment, alcohol treatment or drug rehabilitation requirement.

Custodial sentences, including suspended sentence orders

There is no general definition of where the custody threshold lies, that is the point at which an offence becomes so serious that a custodial sentence is required. However, the Imposition guideline emphasises that:

  • prison should be reserved as a punishment for the most serious offences only
  • a prison sentence must not be passed unless the offence or the combination of the offence and one or more offences associated with it is ‘so serious that neither a fine alone nor a community sentence can be justified’, and
  • where an offender is on the cusp of custody, imprisonment should not be imposed if there would be an impact on dependants (for example, children) that would make a custodial sentence disproportionate to achieving the aims of sentencing.

Even where the court decides that custody is the only option considering all the circumstances of a case, the Imposition guideline makes clear that the court should consider the shortest custodial sentence that is appropriate for the seriousness of the offence and provides factors for the court to consider whether that sentence could be suspended.

Offenders who have their sentences suspended do not go to prison immediately but are given the chance to not commit any further offences and comply with up to 14 requirements set by the court. The guideline also sets out a variety of other considerations that courts should take into account before sentence to help them reach the most suitable sentence for that offender with all the circumstances in mind.

Bringing the guideline up to date

The Council is reviewing the current Imposition guideline, following changes in law made by Parliament and feedback from people from the criminal justice community who use the guideline. We ran a public consultation between November 2023 and February 2024, and expect to publish our response to this consultation and the revised guideline in autumn 2024.