Website of the UK government

Please note that this website has a UK government accesskeys system.

Public services all in one place

Main menu

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Sentencing: an overview

When someone is found guilty of a crime, they will be given a sentence by a court. Sentences can be a fine, a community sentence or time spent in prison. Find out why sentences are given and what they are for.

What sentences are for

Sentences are given to:

  • punish offenders
  • protect the public
  • change an offender’s behaviour
  • make offenders do something to make up for their crime
  • reduce crime in the future

How sentences are worked out

A tougher sentence may be given if it’s not an offender’s first offence

When magistrates or judges give sentences, they must take into account:

  • the type of crime and how serious it is
  • if the offender admits their guilt
  • the offender’s criminal history
  • the offender’s personal and financial circumstances
  • the law and sentencing guidelines

Magistrates and judges use guidelines when working out sentences. These guidelines, produced by an independent organisation, show what sort of sentences could be given for particular types of crime.

The court decides how serious a crime is by looking at:

  • the harm it caused or could cause
  • why it happened, for example, was it planned

Different offenders may not be given the same sentence for the same type of crime, as magistrates and judges look at the circumstances of each case. A tougher sentence may be given if it’s not an offender’s first offence or a lighter sentence if the offender admits their guilt at an early stage.

What happens when an offender is sentenced

When an offender is sentenced, they can get one of four main types of sentence:

  • discharges
  • court fines
  • community sentences
  • prison sentences

There may also be other requirements for the offender known as court orders.


When the court decides someone is guilty, but decides not to punish them at this time, they will be given a ‘discharge’.

Discharges are given for minor offences. A court may give a discharge if it decides the experience of going to court is enough of a punishment in itself.

There are two types of discharge:

  • an absolute discharge means that no more action will be taken
  • a conditional discharge means that the offender will not be punished unless they commit another offence within a set period of time

Court fines

Most sentences are for minor offences. The majority of these will get a court fine. Fines are given for offences like:

  • driving and road traffic offences, eg speeding or not having insurance
  • minor offences of theft or criminal damage
  • not having a TV licence

The fine amount depends on how serious a crime is and the offender’s ability to pay. An offender may also have to pay compensation to the victim and an extra payment called the ‘victims’ surcharge’.

Find out more about court fines by following the link below.

Community sentences

Community sentences place ‘requirements’ on the offender that they must meet in the community.

These can include unpaid work which benefits the community (called Community Payback) or getting treatment for alcohol or drug problems.

They can also include a curfew, where the offender has to stay indoors, usually at their home, for set times each day.

If they don’t meet these requirements, they can be given a more serious sentence and in some cases sent to prison.

Find out more about community sentences by following the link below.

Prison sentences

Prison sentences are given when an offence is so serious that only a prison sentence is a suitable form of punishment. A prison sentence will also be given when the court believes the public must be protected from the offender.

Find out more about prison sentences by following the link below.

Additional court orders

A court may add other requirements to a sentence connected with the offender’s behaviour. For example, a court can add an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) to a community sentence. Other orders that can be added to a sentence include parenting orders, football banning orders or drinking banning orders.

When crimes don't go to court

Not all crimes go to court for sentencing. Some first-time offences and less serious crimes may be dealt with by the police or a local authority. These are called out-of-court disposals. In these cases a formal warning or a fixed penalty notice - where a fixed amount of money must be paid - may be given. Crimes that could be dealt with outside the court system include:

  • parking offences
  • travelling on public transport without a ticket
  • behaving badly in public

If an offender gets into further trouble or doesn't pay a fixed penalty notice they may then be dealt with by the court.

Young people and sentencing

Some sentences are different for young people aged 10 to 17 years old. To find out about these sentences see the ‘Young people and custody’ and ‘Community sentences' links below.

Appealing against a sentence

If an offender disagrees with a sentence, they may consider appealing against it. It is a good idea to get advice from a lawyer before starting the process.

Was this information useful?

Thinking about what you have just read, how useful did you find the information?
Thinking about what you have just read, how useful did you find the information?
500 character limit

Why are we asking for this information?

  • we want to hear what you think about the quality and usefulness of our pages
  • your comments will help us improve our pages
  • your comments will also help with the future development of Directgov
  • telling us what you think will help make sure we give you the very best service

Additional links

Access keys