Determinate sentences are the most common type of prison sentence.

A determinate prison sentence is where the court sets a fixed length for the prison sentence. If an offender is sentenced to four years in prison, for example, that is the maximum time the offender could spend in custody, but they will not necessarily spend the whole of this time in prison.

The rules governing when a prisoner is released and what happens after release, vary depending on the length of the sentence.

  • For sentences of less than two years the offender will be released at the halfway point of the sentence and will then be on licence for the remainder of the sentence. At the end of that period they will be subject to supervision (see the table below for examples). If the offender breaches the terms of their supervision they will brought before a magistrates’ court and may be punished for the breach.
  • Offenders sentenced to two years or more will normally serve half their sentence in prison and serve the rest of the sentence in the community on licence (see the table below for an examples). While on licence an offender will be subject to supervision and the licence will include conditions. If an offender breaches their conditions, they may be recalled to prison. For some serious violent or sexual offences where the sentence is 7 years or more the offender will be released at the two-thirds point. For terrorism offences the release arrangements are different and offenders may serve two-thirds or more of their sentence in custody.
Sentence imposed by court Period in custody before release Arrangements on release
6 month sentence 3 months 3 months’ licence and 9 months’ post-sentence supervision. Total supervision 12 months
10 month sentence 5 months 5 months’ licence and 7 months’ post-sentence supervision. Total supervision 12 months
18 month sentence 9 months 9 months’ licence and 3 months’ post-sentence supervision. Total supervision 12 months
3 year sentence 18 months 18 months’ licence
6 year sentence 3 years 3 years’ licence

Offenders serving sentences of between three months and four years, with certain exceptions for violent and sexual offenders, may also be eligible for release on a home detention curfew (HDC). This allows an offender to be released up to 135 days before their automatic release date. The offender will be electronically tagged and a curfew imposed. If the offender breaches the curfew they can be recalled to prison.

In 2019, 76,000 offenders were given a determinate sentence, representing six per cent of total offenders sentenced and 99 per cent of total immediate custodial sentence outcomes. (These statistics are taken from the Ministry of Justice’s criminal justice statistics publications.)