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Sentencing & after sentencing – Your questions answered

These FAQ’s are intended as an overview of some potential questions that you may have about the sentencing process and what happens after sentencing. For any specific issues related to your case or investigation please do get in touch with us here.

Who determines what punishment a convicted defendant receives?

Judges, not juries, almost always determine the punishment, even following jury trials. In fact, a common jury instruction warns jurors not to consider the question of punishment when deciding a defendant’s guilt or innocence.

Why do outcomes vary by crime?

Sentencing in individual cases is a matter for the independent judiciary, who make their decisions based on the full facts of each case. These facts will vary for each case and therefore the outcomes (sentences) are also likely to vary. The crime categories featured on Police.uk are very broad and capture a wide range of offences and severity of offence; for example ‘violent crime’ will include common assault and murder. Therefore, the type of outcomes will vary considerably.

HM Courts & Tribunals Service is unable to answer questions on specific sentencing decisions. If an individual is unhappy with their sentencing outcome they can appeal to a higher court.

Out-of-court punishments given by the police can be a vital tool for dealing with low level crime in the community. That is why the police and criminal justice agencies are working together to ensure there is a clear and consistent approach which victims and communities can understand. However, individual decisions remain an operational matter for the police and Crown Prosecution Service.

Do people convicted of the same or similar crimes receive similar sentences?

Crimes do not carry mandatory sentences. Rather, judges can take a number of factors into account when deciding on an appropriate punishment. For instance, judges may typically consider factors that include the following:

  • the defendant’s past criminal record, age, and sophistication
  • the circumstances under which the crime was committed, and
  • whether the defendant genuinely feels remorse.

How are sentences worked out?

If found guilty of a crime, the sentence will depend on a number of factors, including the type, seriousness and circumstances of the crime.

When deciding on a sentence, the judge or magistrate will consider things like:

  • your age
  • the seriousness of the crime
  • if you have a criminal record
  • if you pleaded guilty or not guilty

    The sentence might also depend on any ‘aggravating’ or ‘mitigating’ circumstances.

    An aggravating circumstance is something that makes a crime more serious, eg burgling someone’s house while they are asleep in bed.

    A mitigating circumstance is something that makes a crime less serious, eg you have problems in your personal life that have affected your behaviour.


Do criminals get out of prison early without serving their full sentence?

A jail sentence means more than just time in prison. If an offender is sent to prison, the judge will decide how long he should spend in custody, but time in prison is just one part of the sentence. Offenders always complete their full sentence but usually half the time is spent in prison and the rest is spent on licence. While on licence, an offender can be sent back to prison if they break its terms.

The system of serving half a sentence in prison and half on licence was introduced by Parliament, and is not something that judges or magistrates have any control over.

Do criminals who aren’t jailed just walk free from court?

The phrase “walk free from court” often appears in media reports about situations where someone is found guilty but is not sent to prison. The fact is that these offenders will face many restrictions on their freedom. The only time someone could genuinely “walk free” from court is when they are either acquitted – that is, when they are found not guilty – or when they receive an unconditional discharge.

If they are given a community sentence, they have to comply with up to 12 restrictions on them such as doing unpaid work for up to 300 hours, keeping to a curfew, a ban from going to particular places or doing certain activities or supervision by the Probation Service. A suspended sentence, which gives an offender the chance to mend their ways, comes with similar restrictions and, if they commit another crime or don’t keep to the requirements, they can be sent to prison.

Even if offenders get a conditional discharge, if they commit another crime they could find themselves back in court to be sentenced for the new offence, and the original one.

Does a life sentence last for life?

If an offender is given a life sentence, it does last for the rest of their life. They will serve a term in prison – for example the minimum term for a murder with a knife is 25 years – then they will be released on licence which means they are subject to certain conditions for the rest of their life. If they break the terms of this licence, they will end up back in prison. The most serious offenders receive a whole life tariff, which means they will spend the rest of their life in prison – currently there are over 50 such prisoners.

What is restorative justice?

Restorative justice (RJ) is an approach to trying to deal with the harm caused by crime and other conflicts. It involves bringing together victims and offenders to help you find answers, and to help the offender to fit back into society. Research shows many people find restorative justice helps them to move on with their lives after experiencing crime. It can also reduce the frequency of reoffending.

Restorative justice is a completely voluntary process and will only take place with the permission of participants.

How does restorative justice help?

Restorative justice gives you, the victim, a chance to ask the offender questions and have your say, or tell them how their criminal behaviour has affected you. It also helps many people to move forward and recover from the impact of crime.

It gives the offender a chance to:

  • admit what they have done and the impact it has had
  • make up for it in some way
  • work to change their behaviour.

This can be done face-to-face with the offender, with an official mediator or facilitator present, or indirectly through a mediator.

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Last modified 22nd November 2016

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