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If an offender pleads or is found guilty by the court, then a sentence for the crime will be passed. Magistrates and judges are responsible for deciding what sentence is given.

Considerations that must be taken into account before sentencing include:

  • the facts of the case;
  • a need to reduce crime;
  • protection of the public;
  • rehabilitating the offender;
  • sentencing guidelines – these are guidelines set down by the Sentencing Council; and
  • the circumstances of the offender – the Probation Service may need to produce a report about the offender.

There are four types of sentence available to the courts, depending upon the seriousness of the crime.

Police cell door


This is when the court decides that given the character of the offender and the nature of the crime, punishment would not be appropriate. There are two types of discharge:

Absolute discharge: No further action is taken, since either the offence was very minor, or the court considers that the experience has been enough of a deterrent. The offender will receive a criminal record.

Conditional discharge: The offender is released and the offence registered on their criminal record. No further action is taken unless they commit a further offence within a time decided by the court (no more than three years).


The court can order the offender to pay a fine. The maximum fine allowed in a Magistrates’ Court is £5,000. Fines are unlimited in the Crown Court.

Speed camera

Community sentences

These combine punishment with activities designed to change the offender’s behaviour and to make amends – sometimes directly to the victim of the crime.

These can include:

  • compulsory (unpaid) work or participation in specified activities;
  • programmes aimed at changing offending behaviour;
  • stopping the offender from taking part in certain activities;
  • ensuring the offender sticks to a curfew (this may involve electronic tagging);
  • making it illegal for the offender to be in certain areas;
  • ensuring the person who committed a crime lives at a particular place;
  • compulsory mental health treatment or drug and alcohol treatment and testing; and
  • attendance at a particular place.


For the most serious offences, the court may impose a prison sentence. The length of sentence is limited by the maximum penalty for that crime.

The sentence imposed by the court represents the maximum amount of time that the offender will remain in custody.