Imprisonment is the most severe sentence available to the courts. Custodial sentences are reserved for the most serious offences and are imposed when the offence committed is “so serious that neither a fine alone nor a community sentence can be justified for the offence” (section 230(2) of the Sentencing Code). A custodial sentence may be imposed where the court believes it is necessary to protect the public. The length of the sentence depends on the seriousness of the offence and the maximum penalty for the crime allowed by law. Parliament has also introduced minimum sentences for some serious offences that must be imposed unless there are exceptional circumstances:

  • seven years’ imprisonment for a third Class A drug trafficking offence
  • three years for a third domestic burglary
  • five years for certain firearms offences
  • six months for a second offence of possessing a weapon
  • six months for threatening with a weapon.

Types of custodial sentence

There are a number of different types of prison sentence that the courts can impose:

When an offender is released from prison will depend on the type of sentence. In 2019, 76,000 defendants were given an immediate custodial sentence, representing six per cent of offenders sentenced that year. (These statistics are taken from the Ministry of Justice’s criminal justice statistics publications.)