Prison is only used for the most serious offences and offenders. As well as guideline decisions on the length of sentence laid down by the Court of Appeal, all offences where prison is the punishment have a maximum term laid down by Parliament.
Types of custodial sentence
Custodial sentencing options for adult offenders include:
- set or discretionary life sentence
- a public protection sentence, such as an indeterminate or an extended custodial sentence
- determinate custodial sentence of imprisonment which can be a suspended sentence
Custodial sentencing options for juvenile and young offenders are:
- juvenile justice centre order
- period of detention in a young offenders centre, which can be suspended
Offenders who are convicted of murder are automatically sentenced to life imprisonment and this is also the maximum penalty for some other very serious crimes.
There is no set period of custody for prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment. Prisoners serve a period which takes into account the need to:
- punish the individual offender
- deter others from committing similar offences
- protect the public from future harm
The court will set a life sentence tariff which is the minimum period the individual must serve before being considered for release by the Parole Commissioners.
After release, a life sentence prisoner is on licence for life and may be returned to prison by the Department of Justice, if they are considered to be a risk to public safety.
Indeterminate Custodial Sentence (ICS)
The Indeterminate Custodial Sentence (ICS) can be used for the most serious sexual and violent offences, those which carry a penalty of 10 years or more, and can mean that the prisoner can, potentially, be imprisoned for life.
The defendant would only receive an ICS if the court considers that an Extended Custodial Sentence (ECS) would not be adequate.
Extended Custodial Sentence (ECS)
The Extended Custodial Sentence (ECS) will be used in the case of those sexual or violent offences for which the maximum penalty is no more than 10 years. The sentence will be a determinate sentence of at least one year and prisoners will become eligible for consideration for release by the Parole Commissioners at the half way point of this custodial term.
As well as custody, courts will set extended supervision periods of up to five years for violent offenders and eight years for sexual offenders.
Determinate custodial sentence
A determinate custodial sentence is a sentence of imprisonment for a period of time set by the court. Depending on the length of the sentence, the first half is served in custody and the second half on licence. A licenced prisoner can be recalled to prison for breaking licence conditions.
Release on licence for sex offenders
An offender who gets a custodial sentence for a sexual offence may be released on licence. The court can order this to happen, and will require the offender to be supervised from the date of release until the date the full sentence would have ended. Conditions will be applied to the licence and the offender will be supervised by a probation officer during the time on licence. The court does not have to seek the offender's consent for this type of sentence.
The court may decide that a prison sentence is the right punishment for the particular offence, but that the offender should not be sent to prison unless they are convicted of a further offence, within a given period.
This is when sentencing is postponed until a future court date. This is for a set period of up to one year for the Judge to see how the defendant behaves during that time period.
Custodial sentences for young people who offend
Custodial sentencing options for juvenile and young offenders are a juvenile justice centre order or a period of detention in a Young Offenders Centre.
Young Offenders Centre
Offenders aged between 18 and 21 can be detained in a Young Offenders Centre if they commit an offence which, if someone 21 or over had of committed, would be punishable with imprisonment. The maximum term is four years.
Juvenile Justice Centre Order
Offenders under the age of 18 can be sentenced to a fixed period of between six months and two years, with half of the sentence served under close supervision in the community.
Other custodial sentences
Under 18s can sometimes be sentenced to longer than two years for very serious offences.
Find out more about youth justice.