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What are the types of sentences in the UK?

When a defendant pleads guilty to an offence or is found guilty, a sentence will be enforced by the court (magistrates’ court or crown court). Sentencing is decided by a number of factors, such as the type of crime that was committed, the law, the sentencing guidelines, the offender’s criminal history and the offender’s personal circumstances among other considerations. There are five main types of sentences the court can pass, and we’ve added an explanation of each below:


Often given for minor offences, discharges are passed by the court when a person has been found guilty of an offence but the court decides not to hand down a criminal conviction. There are two types of discharges. An ‘absolute discharge’ means no more action will be taken and a ‘conditional discharge’ ensures the offender will not be punished unless they commit another offence within a set period of time (which is decided by the court). A court that passes a discharge may still order the defendant to pay compensation to the victim or a contribution towards the prosecution's costs. For some motoring offences, they may be ‘discharged’ yet also disqualified from driving.

A fine and compensation

Fines are the most common sentence and they are passed for less serious crimes that don’t merit a community or prison sentence. The amount the offender must pay will depend on the severity of the crime and of course their ability to make the payments.

Disqualification from driving

Courts can disqualify offenders from driving on conviction for any offence and the offence does not need to be connected to the use of a motor vehicle. That said, penalty points can be added to an offender’s driving licence upon conviction for motoring offences, and depending on the number of points enforced, this can result in an offender being disqualified from driving (for a period of time).

Community sentence

For offences that are too serious for a discharge or a fine, but not so serious, a custodial sentence may be imposed, and community sentences can be passed. The court will decide on the requirements of the community sentence, but an offender may need to undertake between 40 and 300 hours of work, or comply with electrically monitored curfews during specified hours among many other possible requirements.

Prison sentence

Prison sentences are given when a crime is so serious that it’s the only suitable punishment. There are three types of prison sentences:

Suspended – when an offender receives a prison sentence yet does not go directly to prison. Instead the offender must not commit another offence during the suspension period set, and must comply with any community sentence requirements enforced by the court.

Determinate - When an offender has half of the sentence served in custody and half of the sentence in the community.

Interdeterminate (including life sentences) – the offender has no right to be released. They will always serve the ‘minimum’ sentence decided by the court.

Now we have offered an insight into each type of sentence and the three main types of prison sentence, it’s important to understand how parole can be decided. Parole is the release of a prisoner on licence by the Parole Board while their sentence is ongoing. If you are eligible for parole, you will receive an application form to be completed by your legal advisor, whilst the prison will compile documents that detail how you’ve behaved in prison and what you plan to do on release, whilst evidence can be added. The Parole Board will then decide that you cannot be released, or that your case needs a hearing. The purpose of a parole hearing is for the board to decide whether you can and should be returned to society, and if so, when that return should take place.

When will you be eligible?

If you have a life or indeterminate sentence, you will be contacted either 3 years before your earliest release date runs out (if you’re serving a sentence over 4 years). Or at least 6 months before your tariff runs out if you’re serving a shorter sentence.

For extended sentence or fixed-term sentences, which are types of determinate sentences, you will be contacted 6 months before your earliest release date, but you will not be eligible for parole if your sentence is less than 4 years.

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