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.

When a crime is committed and the police arrest and charge someone, the Crown Prosecution Service decides whether or not to take them to court.

If the person is prosecuted, they become a defendant in court. If they either plead guilty or are found guilty by magistrates or, for more serious offences, a jury, they become an offender and will be sentenced by the court.

The judge or magistrates look at the facts of the case and decide the appropriate sentence based on the harm done to the victim and how much responsibility the offender has for the crime. 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?

One of the aims of sentencing is to punish the offender for the crime they have committed. There are other important aims such as preventing crime happening in the future so more people don’t become victims of the same offender.

There are five purposes of sentencing the courts must bear in mind when dealing with the vast majority of adult offenders. These purposes are set out in s.57 of the Sentencing Code.

  • To punish the offender this can include going to prison, doing unpaid work in the community, obeying a curfew or paying a fine.
  • To reduce crime – by preventing the offender from committing more crime, and putting others off from committing similar offences.
  • To reform and rehabilitate offenders – changing an offender’s behaviour to prevent future crime, for example by requiring them to have treatment for drug addiction or alcohol abuse.
  • To protect the public – from 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.
  • To 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 receive an apology.

How do judges and magistrates weigh up the five purposes of sentencing?

When considering a sentence, as well as bearing in mind the five purposes of sentencing, the judge or magistrates must refer to the law, including the maximum and, in some cases, minimum sentence and any sentencing guidelines relevant to the offence that has been committed. The sentencing guidelines set out the process judges and magistrates should follow and the factors they should consider to work out the appropriate sentence.

The factors taken into account will vary depending on the facts of each individual case but, because the judge or magistrates will be following the sentencing guidelines, they will take a consistent approach. The kind of factors the judge or magistrates will consider will include seriousness of the offence, harm caused to the victim, the offender’s level of blame, their criminal record, their personal circumstances and whether they have pleaded guilty. These factors may be relevant in determining the type of sentence as well as how long it might be and the type and number of requirements that might be imposed.

This short video gives an overview of the kinds of factors that influence a sentence (or you could read the transcript).

Watch judges deliver sentencing remarks

Since July 2022 the public have been able to watch live broadcasts of judges explaining the reasoning behind sentences in some high-profile Crown Court hearings, following a change in the law. You can watch videos of these broadcasts to see how judges make sentencing decisions and hear about the role played by sentencing guidelines in achieving a consistent approach to sentencing

You can also find information about sentencing on GOV.UK.