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A Guide to Criminal Sentencing Under UK Law

Criminal Sentencing Under UK Law

In this article, we explore the following:
• How is sentencing decided by judges and magistrates?
• What are the different types of sentences given to offenders under UK law?
• How are young people sentenced under UK law?

In this article, we explore the following:
• How is sentencing decided by judges and magistrates?
• What are the different types of sentences given to offenders under UK law?
• How are young people sentenced under UK law?

An introduction to criminal sentencing under UK law

Under UK law, criminal sentencing is guided by the Sentencing Council. This body has provided guidelines to help judges and magistrates decide what sentences are appropriate for every offence.

Although every crime and offender are unique, the guidelines provided ensure that the sentences given are not only appropriate but in alignment right across the UK whether the crime took place in Gateshead, Guildford or Glasgow.

An essential element of preventing crime is giving the correct punishment for each offence.  Not only does the victim needs to feel that justice has been done, but the offender needs to be discouraged from offending further.

When judges and magistrates decide which sentence to give to an offender, they take answers to the following questions into account:

  • How serious was the crime?
  • What happened to the victim?
  • Why did the offender do the crime?
  • Was the crime committed on the spur of the moment or did they mean to do it?

The punishment selected should fit the crime. Despite every case being different, the way that a judge or magistrate decides the sentence is the same.

In the Sentencing Guidelines, there is a range of sentences for each crime, and the judge and magistrate must decide which punishment is right for that particular case.  The greater the crime, the greater the sentence.

For example, let’s look at how this is applied with a burglary. If a burglar kicked down a door and threatened the homeowners with a knife, then this would be far more serious than somebody reaching through an open window to steal something.

When it comes to harm, there needs to be consideration given to how much harm there was to the victim. Were they hurt physically or psychology, or did they lose possessions or money?

The offender’s level of blame is also considered. For example, did they plan the crime, use a weapon or purposefully target a vulnerable person? If the offender did, it will mean they receive a stiffer sentence as they are more blameworthy.

If the offender already has a criminal record, they will also be treated more harshly.

Sentencing can be reduced

When it comes to reducing a sentence, the judge or magistrate will consider whether the offender looks after dependent relatives, whether they show remorse and are genuinely sorry for the act and plead guilty; if so, they may receive a lesser sentence.

If the offender admits to being guilty early, it will save the victim and witnesses the stress of going through trial and that also saves costs and time for the courts. By pleading guilty early, they may even be able to reduce the sentence by as much as a third. The later they plead guilty, the smaller the reduction.

Judges and magistrates also consider what type of sentence could change the offender’s behaviour. It’s essential to deter them from committing future crimes.

types of sentencing given for all crimes

There are five types of sentence, the toughest one being imprisonment. A prison will be given when a crime is particularly serious and the offender’s previous record is negative. The offender will typically spend half of their sentence in prison, and the other half on licence in the community.

Being on licence means obeying rules which may include wearing a tracking tag. If the offender doesn’t follow the rules, they can be sent back to prison.  They will be given hours of community work to do or asked to attend treatment for drug addiction. They could be given anywhere between 40 and 300 hours of physical community work.

The third type of sentence is fines for when the offences are less severe. Fines are actually the most common penalty given.  The amount of the fine is set by looking at the seriousness of the crime and how much money the offender has available.

The fourth type of sentence is being given points or disqualification from driving for motoring offences. Penalty points are added to a driving license depending on what took place.

The final type of sentence is a discharge. This sentence is given when the experience of going through court is thought to be enough of a deterrent against future offending. It can come with conditions, which means if another offence is committed then the offender will be sentenced for the first offence and the new one.

Let’s take a look at sentencing under UK law in more detail and how your solicitor can help you to secure the best possible outcome.

Before we do so, it’s important to note that if an offender pleads guilty or is found guilty, then a sentence must be given whether the case takes place in a Magistrate’s Court or a Crown Court.

More about types of criminal sentence under UK Law

The court uses five main types of sentencing when giving punishment for an offence. In order of seriousness, these are:

  1. A prison sentence

When an offence is committed that is very serious, judges and magistrates will give a prison sentence. Deterring an offender from committing further crimes is an integral part of sentencing, and in some cases, a prison sentence is used as a way to provide the public with protection from the offender.

The types of prison sentences that can be given are:

  • Suspended sentence
  • Determinate sentence
  • Indeterminate sentence (including life sentences)

Suspended sentences and how they are applied in the UK 

Suspended sentences are in effect, a test as to whether an offender will re-offend. When an offender is handed a suspended sentence, they are not sent to prison but allowed to remain in the community with the understanding that they will not commit any further crimes. If they do commit a crime, then they will be sent to prison for all or part of the original prison term, or receive an extension to the term of suspended sentence.

A court will typically give the offender a suspended sentence if the time they would have spent in prison is below 12 months. The suspended prison sentence may be suspended for up to 2 years.

In addition to not committing an offence during the suspension period, the offender must comply with any other rules imposed by the court. These rules may include community service or reporting to a police station on certain days of the week and at certain times.

Determinate sentences and how they are applied in the UK 

When the court fixes the length of a prison sentence, it is known as a determinate sentence. For example, the magistrate or judge may say that the offender is sentenced to 5 years in prison.

When a determinate sentence is given to the offender, they will spend half of the sentence in prison and the other half in the community. Offenders who are given 12 months in prison, will typically be put on licence for the second part of their sentence. This means that they are released from jail but required to be supervised by the probation service and meet other conditions.

If those conditions are not met, they will be recalled to prison for part or all of the remainder of their sentence.

Offenders who have been sentenced to under 2 years are typically released after a period of 12 months, but expected to attend regular meetings with a probation officer and comply with specific requirements. For example, if an offender is sentenced to 2 months, they will serve half of this in prison and 11 months on post sentence supervision. If the supervision is breached by the offender, they will receive further punishment.

Indeterminate sentences and how they are applied in the UK

When an offender commits a more serious or violent crime or a sexual offence, or they are considered to be a danger to the public, they will normally be given a set minimum time in which to spend time in prison. For example ‘a minimum of 10 years’. This minimum period is known as a tariff.

There is no automatic right to be released for an indeterminate sentence. The minimum sentence given by the court will always be served. When this minimum time is completed, the parole board will decide whether the offender can be released under licence.

Life sentences and how they are applied in UK law

When a life sentence is given, it means that the offender will need to comply with specific conditions for the rest of their life. One of these conditions will typically be to spend a set period in prison before the parole board decides whether it’s safe for the offender to be released.

Being given a life sentence means that the offender will stay under licence for the rest of their life. They will be called back to prison if they do not comply with the terms of the licence. Life sentences must be given when an offender is found to be guilty of murder. Other serious offences may also be given a life sentence by the judge, where the law allows.

What is a whole life term?

A judge may hand a ‘whole life term’ to an offender who is found guilty in severe cases. This means that the offender will never be released from prison.

A community sentence

Crimes that are too serious to be given a discharge or a fine will have a community sentence imposed. Offenders must comply with requirements chosen by the court based on how best to punish the offender and reduce the risk of them offending in the future. A typical community sentence may include one or more of the following:

  • Unpaid work in the community for between 40 and 300 hours
  • Wearing an electronic tag and comply with a curfew for a specific period
  • Meeting regularly with a probation officer
  • Completing a course for relevant issues such as sexual offending or domestic abuse
  • Completing a treatment course of alcohol or drug addiction
  • Complying with a residency, exclusion, prohibited activity or a mental health treatment requirement
  • Completing a specific activity requirement
  • For young people under the age of 25, there may be a sentence of going to an attendance centre for a specified time.

Not adhering to the terms of the community sentence will mean being sent back to court and potentially having their sentence period extended by time or given a fine. Alternatively, the offender will be resentenced, and the community sentence will be revoked.

A fine and compensation

Being given a fine is the most common criminal sentence. Fines are typically used as a punishment for crimes that are less serious and in some cases may even be used instead of being given a community sentence.

How much the fine is, will depend on the seriousness of the crime and what the offender can afford to pay. If the offence caused harm to a victim, there might also be a punishment of paying compensation. In some cases, there is no other penalty given other than a compensation order.

Disqualification from driving and penalty points

There doesn’t need to be a motoring offence involved for the court to disqualify a driver. Any offence can be involved. In addition, there can be penalty points given to a driver licence, and this may lead to the offender being disqualified for a period of time.


Minor offences can result in the guilty offender being given a discharge.  Discharges come in two types:

  • An absolute discharge is when  no further action will be taken
  • A conditional discharge is when the offender won’t receive punishment unless they re-offend within a set period determined by the courts (a maximum of three years). If the offender breaches the conditional discharge, they may be re-sentenced for the original offence and the new offence.

Sentencing for Young People Under UK Law 

When offenders are between the age of 10 and 17, the courts have a range of different sentences that they can give. These include:

  • A discharge – just as for adult offenders, absolute or conditional
  • A fine – which will reflect the offence committed and the ability of the offender to pay. This fine will be the responsibility of the parent or guardian if the offender is under 16 years of age.
  • A referral order – the offender will be required to attend a youth offender panel. This panel is made up of two local community members and an advisor from a youth offending team. Certain commitments will need to be agreed to on a contract which will last anywhere between three months and one year. The first time an offender pleads guilty, the order must be imposed or another sentence which is determined by the court.
  • A youth rehabilitation order – a community sentence which may be up to three years. This sentence may include unpaid work, drug or mental health treatment, education, supervision or a curfew.
  • A custodial sentence – this is known as a Detention and Training Order (DTO). Imposed only for the most serious of cases, they provide training and education and rehabilitate the offender to avoid re-offending. Time may be spent in secure training centres, secure children’s homes and young offenders’ institutions.

In the youth court, a young person between 12 and 17 may be sentenced with a DTO lasting between 4 months and two years.

In the crown court, a DTO is given to an offender aged between 10 and 17 and for a more extended period than two years if necessary.

Sentencing for specific offences

Read our detailed guides on sentencing for the following offences:

Category Offence Type
Fraud Offences Fraud by False Representation Offences
Benefit Fraud Offences
Conspiracy to Defraud Offences
Fraud by Abuse of Position
  Boiler Room Fraud Offences
  Carbon Credit Fraud Offences
  Computer Fraud Offences
  Credit Card Fraud Offences
  Electoral Fraud Offences
  Fraudulent Trading Offences
  Immigration Fraud Offences
  Identity Fraud Offences
  Investment Fraud Offences
  Land Banking Fraud Offences
  Mortgage Fraud Offences
  Online Fraud Offences
  VAT Fraud Offences
  Tax Evasion Offences
  Insurance Fraud Offences
  Obtaining Services Dishonestly Offences
  Charity Fraud Offences
Criminal Defence Offences Murder Offences
  Conspiracy to Murder Offences
  Conspiracy Offences
  Firearms Offences
  Grievous Bodily Harm Offences
  Human Trafficking Offences
  Death by Dangerous Driving Offences
Money Laundering Offences Bribery and Corruption Offences
  Money Laundering Conspiracy Offences
  Bribery & Corruption Offences
  Tipping Off Offences
  Hawala Banking Offences
Sexual Offences Sexual Assault Offences
  Historic Sexual Offences
  Causing or inciting sexual activity Offences
  Child Grooming Offences
  False Rape Allegations
  Revenge Porn Offences
  Sexual Communication with a Child Offences
Indecent Images Offences Possession of Indecent Images Offences
  Making / Producing  Indecent Images Offences
  Downloading Indecent Images Offences
  Distribution of Indecent Images Offences
Drug Offences Conspiracy to Supply Class A Drugs Offences
Possession with Intent to Supply Drugs Offences
  Cultivation of Cannabis Offences
  Conspiracy to Supply Steroids Offences
  Importation of Drugs Offences
  Importation of Steroids Offences
  Production of Drugs Offences
Robbery Offences Armed Robbery Offences
Cybercrime Offences Cybercrime Offences
  Computer Hacking Offences
  Hacking & Malware Offences
  Digital Piracy Copyright Offences

sentencing – Frequently Asked Questions

Does a life sentence last for life?

Yes, the life sentence is for life and will last for the rest of the life of the offender. They will spend part of the sentence in prison and then released on licence. This means that the offender will need to adhere to conditions set by the court for the rest of their life. If they do not adhere to these conditions, they will be sent back to prison. Offenders of the most serious crimes will spend all of their life in prison.

How long is a life sentence served in prison in the UK?

The typical life sentence is around 15 years before parole. Offenders who are convicted of serious crimes are likely to serve longer in prison.

What is meant by ‘walked free from court, after being sentenced? 

You may read these words in the media, but they are not all they seem.  What is meant by the media in these situations is that the offender has not been sent to prison. However, there will still be restrictions that apply to the offender as every non-custodial sentence comes with restrictions. These may include curfews, community service or having to report to the police station or a parole officer. Failing to comply with these restrictions is likely to result in the offender being sent to prison.

Why are offenders given a reduction in a sentence for admitting guilt? 

It’s possible to get a reduction of a third off your sentence by admitting your guilt. This is for the time and cost saved to those involved in the criminal justice system. It means that the time and resources of the police and the courts can be saved for and diverted to the most serious  of cases. The magistrates and judges decide how much time off the offender receives after the guilty plea is given. The earlier the guilty plea is given, the greater the reduction.

How Stuart Miller Solicitors can help

A critical part of providing professional legal advice is to advise a client on what sentence they may face for an offence. Doing so means that the individual can make an informed decision on what they will plead and understand what the possible outcome could be of their case.

During any sentencing hearing, it is imperative that you are represented properly. A solicitor will mitigate on your behalf to get you the best possible sentence. Using advocacy that is competent, experienced and knowledgeable is what the most effective way to obtain the best result.

At Stuart Miller, we have extensive experience of all types of crimes including those that are violent in addition to sexual, assault, fraud and murder. We approach even the most complicated and serious crimes with a systematic and meticulous manner, and are known for achieving positive results.

Please contact us today if you need advice or representation on any criminal matter.


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