Sentencing and cautions

Sentencing guidelines

Legislation sets out broad rules which govern how judges and magistrates decide upon the sentencing of offenders. For instance, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 sets out, among other things, the rules on how murderers should be sentenced.

More detailed guidelines on specific offences are provided by the Sentencing Council. For offences committed since 6 April 2010, courts have a statutory obligation to follow the guidelines unless it is contrary to the interests of justice to do so (to allow for exceptional circumstances).

As an example, the Sentencing Council provides definitive guidelines for magistrates which assist them in selecting appropriate sentences (or referring a case to a Crown Court if it's serious) for any offence which comes before them.

Sentences in court

There are a number of different types of sentence for people who plead guilty or are found guilty after a trial. The most common sentence is a fine, but people can also get community sentences, prison sentences, or simply be discharged if a court thinks there’s no further need for punishment.

There are essentially three types of prison sentence: suspended, determinate and life

Suspended sentences don't actually involve going to prison, provided offenders comply with the requirements set by the sentence (such as obeying curfews or undertaking treatment for alcohol addiction). 

When a life sentence is passed, a judge must set a minimum term, after which an offender can be released only if this is agreed by the parole board. The offender is then on licence for the rest of his or her life. If the offender receives a ‘whole life order’, this means he or she can never be released.

Determinate sentences are the most common form of prison sentence. Offenders serve the first half of a determinate sentence in prison and the second half in the community, on licence. If they commit a further offence while on licence, they may be sent back to prison.

Data on the type and length of sentences given for different offences is published as part of Ministry of Justice criminal justice statistics, which are produced every three months. Breakdowns are available by age, sex, ethnicity, offence, type of court and average sentence length. Historical figures date back to 2002.

Detailed figures for the average sentence length given for each offence is provided in the more detailed annual tables, which are put out with the quarterly update to December each year.

Out of court penalties

Not all cases where someone’s discovered to have committed a crime make it to court. The police themselves can issue on the spot penalties including cautions, penalty notices for disorder (most often used for anti-social behaviour and low-level crimes) and cannabis warnings.

Figures on the number of cautions and other ‘disposals’ are published in the Ministry of Justice’s criminal justice statistics series, which is produced every three months. The data is broken down by age, gender, ethnicity, type of offence and local police force area.

More detailed tables are published less frequently in the criminal justice statistics annual report.