Sentencing Glossary by UK Prison Council
Aggravating factors – things that make an offence more serious and are likely to increase the sentence.
Allocation – the stage at which magistrates will decide whether to try a case that can be heard either by them or in the Crown Court.
Appeal – In criminal justice, a person convicted of an offence can apply to a higher court to have their conviction overturned or their sentence reduced. Appeals against conviction or sentence in magistrates’ courts are heard in the Crown Court. Appeals against conviction or sentence in the Crown Court are heard in the Court of Appeal Criminal Division.
Case law – law created by judges’ decisions in individual cases in the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court
Community sentence – this is a punishment that may include programmes designed to help people to stop offending. An example might be unpaid work and help with addiction problems.
Compensation – an amount of money ordered by the court to be paid by someone who has committed a criminal offence that has caused personal injury, loss or damage to the victim.
Consultation – a process of getting input and feedback from legal professionals, experts, interested parties and members of the public on a proposed piece of work (usually a new sentencing guideline), normally running for 12 weeks.
Court of Appeal – where decisions are made about cases where someone doesn’t agree with the verdict or the sentence given in the Crown Court.
Crown Court – deals with the more serious criminal offences including murder and rape and cases sent up from the magistrates’ courts. Trials in the Crown Court are in front of a judge and jury. It also hears appeals from magistrates’ courts.
Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) – the body responsible for public prosecutions of people charged with criminal offences in England and Wales.
Culpability – the word used to describe the level of responsibility or blame for committing a crime. For example a person who plans a crime will normally be considered to be more culpable than someone who commits it on the spur of the moment.
Defendant – If a person is prosecuted, they become a defendant in court. If they either plead guilty or are found guilty by magistrates or, for more serious offences, a jury, they then become an offender and will be sentenced by the court.
Determinate prison sentence – the court will set the length of the sentence imposed, for example four years’ imprisonment. An offender sentenced to a determinate sentence will normally be automatically released after serving half their sentence.
Discharge – for the least serious offences like very minor thefts, a court may give
an absolute discharge which means it decides not to impose a punishment because the experience of going to court has been punishment enough, but the offender still gets a criminal record; or a conditional discharge which means that if the offender commits another crime within a set period, they can be sentenced for both offences.
District judges (Magistrates’ Court) – District judges hear the more complex or longer criminal, youth and some civil cases in the magistrates’ courts, but normally do this on their own rather than as magistrates do as a bench of three.
Either way – a case that can either be tried either by magistrates or by a judge and jury in the Crown Court. An example of an either way offence is theft.
Fine – a financial punishment given for lower level crimes. The amount is set by the court after considering the seriousness of the offence and how much money the offender can pay. Fines can be given to organisations as well as people and are the most common type of sentence given.
Harm – the word used to describe the effect of a crime on the victim and the public in general. Harm is taken into account when sentencing. For example a person who causes serious injury will generally be sentenced more harshly than one who causes a minor injury.
Historic offender – an offender whose offences occurred in the past, often when the law in the area or sentence levels were different from how they are now.
Home detention curfew – is a detention scheme whereby certain short-term criminals are released from prison several weeks to months before the completion of their sentence to allow them to integrate back into society. Certain offenders are not eligible, for example violent and sexual offenders. The offender will be tagged and a curfew imposed.
Indeterminate prison sentence – the court will set the minimum term that the offender must serve in prison which must be served in full before they come eligible for consideration to be released. Once this minimum term has been served the offender will be released only when the Parole Board is satisfied that the offender is safe to be released. If released, an offender will be on licence and supervised by the probation service. A life sentence is an indeterminate sentence.
Judges – experienced lawyers who are publicly appointed to preside over trials and pass sentences in criminal cases. They have to be unbiased and fair.
Judiciary – the name given to the judges, magistrates and tribunal members who deal with legal matters in England and Wales.
Jury – a group of normally 12 members of the public who decide if a defendant in a Crown Court trial is either guilty or not guilty of an offence, based on evidence presented in court.
Licence – this is a period of time after an offender is released from prison where they must abide by certain restrictions or risk being sent back to prison. These restrictions can include where someone lives, what work they do, where and when they can go out, and will require them to see their supervising officer. How long an offender spends on licence depends when the offence was committed and what sentence was passed.
Life sentence – there are different types of life sentence but, in essence, the sentence lasts for the rest of the offender’s life. They will serve a period in prison set by the court and be released only if the Parole Board thinks they are not a risk to the public. However, they can be recalled to prison at any time if at risk of breaking the terms of their parole. For the most serious cases, a ‘whole life order’ can be given, meaning the offender will spend the rest of their life in prison.
Lord Chancellor – government minister and member of the cabinet who is also the Secretary of State for Justice.
Lord Chief Justice – the Head of the Judiciary and President of the Courts in England and Wales. The Lord Chief Justice is also president of the Sentencing Council.
Magistrates – also known as Justices of the Peace (JPs). Magistrates are volunteers, aged between 18 and 70, who need no legal qualifications. They are given training and sit in magistrates’ courts as a bench of three, assisted by a legal adviser. Magistrates hear 95 per cent of all criminal cases in England and Wales.
Magistrates’ courts – nearly all criminal cases will start in magistrates’ courts. There are around 150 magistrates’ courts in England and Wales and they deal with over one million cases every year. If a case is more serious it is passed to the Crown Court.
Mitigating factors – things that make an offence less serious and are likely to decrease the sentence.
Open court – the majority of hearings in courts in England and Wales are held in open court whereby the court is open to the public to go and watch. Some sensitive cases are heard in private, known as ‘in camera’.
Parliament – the national representative body representing the UK made up of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, responsible for passing laws.
Parole Board – an independent body that assesses the risks of releasing prisoners and decides whether they can be safely released into the community.
Plea and trial preparation hearings – plea and trial preparation hearings are held in the Crown Court when a defendant has been sent to the Crown Court for trial. At the hearing the defendant will be read the indictment and be asked to plead: guilty or not guilty. If the defendant pleads guilty, sentencing will normally follow immediately but in some cases may be postponed pending pre-sentence reports. If the defendant pleads not guilty, then a timetable will be drawn up for pre-trial preparation and the trial date will be set.
Pre-sentence report – a report, generally prepared by the probation service, to assist the court in determining the most suitable way of dealing with an offender. It should include an assessment of the nature and seriousness of the offence and the impact on the victim. A court will usually obtain a pre-sentence report before imposing a community or custodial sentence.
Prison sentence – prison is used when a crime is so serious, or an offender’s record is so bad, no other sentence will do. Offenders will normally spend half their sentence in prison, and the rest on licence in the community. Being on licence means offenders have to obey certain rules, which could include wearing an electronic tag which restricts where they can go. If they don’t follow the rules, they can be sent back to prison.
Rehabilitation – one of the purposes of sentencing is to assist and encourage offenders to turn away from crime and live a productive life in society. This may take the form of training in life skills within prison or in the community.
Restorative justice – a process which brings together people harmed by crime or conflict with those responsible for the harm, to find a positive way forward. The victim may have the opportunity to tell the offender about the impact of the crime, and they may agree how the harm may be resolved.
Sentence – the punishment that a court imposes on a person who is convicted of a criminal offence. Maximum sentences for different offences are set by law and in some cases there are minimum sentences. For example in the case of murder a sentence of life imprisonment is fixed by law.
Sentencing Code – the Sentencing Code came into effect in England and Wales on 1 December 2020, consolidating existing sentencing procedure law into a single Sentencing Act. The Code covers adult and youth sentencing and applies to all convictions on or after the commencement date, irrespective of the date on which the offence was committed. It includes general provisions relating to sentencing procedure, the different types of sentences available to the courts, and certain behaviour orders that can be imposed in addition to a sentence. The Code is a consolidation so made no substantive changes to the law.
Sentencing guidelines – set out a way for judges and magistrates to consider the seriousness of particular offences, and so decide on the appropriate sentence for each case. They set out different levels of sentence based on the harm caused to the victim and how much the offender is to blame for what happened.
Social research – the collection, analysis and dissemination of evidence to understand, develop, implement, monitor and evaluate government policies and services. This research may involve methods such as surveys, interviews, focus groups, observational techniques and the use of existing data sources.
Suspended sentence – when a court passes a prison sentence of between 14 days and two years it may choose to suspend the sentence for up to two years. The offender must stay out of trouble and comply with up to 13 requirements set by the court.
Victim personal statement – a statement written by a victim explaining the effect the crime has had on them, any concerns they have and indicating any support that they need. Making a victim personal statement is optional. The statement is submitted at the same time as their witness statement and may be read by the victim or the prosecution lawyer or submitted as written evidence.
Surcharge – charge that must be paid by an offender after they have pleaded guilty or been convicted. The amount depends on the circumstances of the offender and the sentence passed. This charge is separate from any fine and is used to fund victims’ services.
Whole life order/tariff – in murder cases, if the court decides that the offence is so serious that the offender should spend the rest of their life in prison they may impose a whole life order which means that the offender will never be released from prison.
Youth courts – part of the magistrates’ courts that deals with almost all cases of offenders aged under 18. Youth court hearings are generally private and members of the public are not allowed in.
Youth Justice Board – oversees the youth justice system in England and Wales and works to prevent offending and reoffending by young people under 18 and to ensure that custody is safe, secure and addresses the causes of their offending behaviour.
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© Advocatetanmoy Law Library
© Advocatetanmoy Law Library