The legal terms used on this page are explained in our jargon buster.
There is a wide range of factors or circumstances that judges can consider when deciding a sentence. First they must decide which factors presented to the court are relevant and should be considered, and then decide how much weight to give to each one. Factors that are likely to increase a sentence are called ‘aggravating’ and factors likely to decrease a sentence are called ‘mitigating’. Some facts cannot be taken into account as a mitigating factor including being drunk. See the law.
Below are some of the main factors that a judge may consider. The list gives general examples of types of issues – but isn’t a complete list. The examples are for background information and aren’t intended to show what disposals may be given in any particular case. Each disposal is a matter solely for the judge.
Nature of the offence
A judge will look at what kind of crime has been committed and how serious it is.
A judge will consider how involved offenders were in a crime and how responsible they were for it happening.
Protection of public and deterrence
When deciding a sentence, judges will consider whether there is a need to protect the public from future offending and how best to do that. They will also consider how to discourage other people from committing similar crimes - this is known as 'deterrence'.
An aggravation in a charge makes it more serious and is likely to increase the sentence. Here are some of the main aggravations that are defined by law.
While offenders are waiting for their case to be heard in court, they can either be held in custody or released on bail. Released on bail means that they are free to leave the court but only under certain conditions. These conditions will include not committing any further offences. If they do commit another offence while on bail this will be added to the charge as a ‘bail aggravation’, which can add up to six months on to the sentence.
Other ways to breach a bail condition; Other bail legislation
Breaches of other Orders can also increase a sentence such as an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (see the law) or a Supervised Release Order. For a fuller list of Orders see the Sentences page of the website.
Other aggravations are used when an offender shows ill-will towards a victim based on a characteristic such as race or religion. The judge will normally state what part of the sentence is for the aggravation. The main aggravations set out by law are:
Sexual orientation / transgender identity.
Aggravations are also used for offences with connections to serious crime or terrorism.
Before a judge considers a sentence, the prosecutor may tell the court about any other crimes the offender has already committed. Other convictions can increase a sentence, especially if they are similar to the current crime.
The personal details of an offender’s life can be considered by the judge when deciding a sentence. These details can include:
- home background - such as whether they care for children
- health - such as whether they can carry out unpaid work
- current living situation - such as whether they have a place to stay
- money - such as whether they can pay a fine or compensation order
- age - if they are younger or older.
Effect on family / job
A judge can look at what effect a sentence will have on the offender’s family or work - for example, whether an offender sent to prison could no longer care for a child, or would lose a long term job.
Opportunities for rehabilitation
What sentence might best help offenders stop committing crimes can also be looked at. For example if they have a drug problem, the judge could consider a Drug Testing and Treatment Order.
The following factors can reduce a sentence.
If an offender has never committed a crime before then this could decrease the sentence.
If an offender pleads guilty, a judge can discount (cut down) a sentence. This recognises the fact that when an offender pleads guilty there is no need for a trial to be held. This means witnesses do not need to give evidence and court time is freed up for other cases. A judge must take into account how early in the court proceedings offenders make it known that they will plead guilty.
It is a matter for the judge to decide whether to give a discount in a sentence, and how much a discount should be. When judges decrease a sentence because of a guilty plea, they will tell the offender by how much it was discounted.
Reductions are not normally more than one-third of what a sentence would have been and are often less than that.
The reduction does not apply to the ‘protection of the public’ part of a sentence, for example, the length of time that a sentence may be extended for prisoners released back into the community on licence. For a fuller explanation of the ‘protection of the public’ part of a sentence, see extended sentence.
Assisting the prosecutor
If an offender, who has pled guilty to a crime, agrees in writing to help the prosecutor with the investigation, then the judge must take into account how the offender has assisted when deciding the sentence.
The judge will give the offender a lower sentence for helping the prosecution and explain what the sentence would otherwise have been.
The sentence can later be reviewed depending on how much help is actually given to the prosecutor. If an offender doesn’t provide what has been promised the sentence can be increased – but not so that is is more than it would have been if no agreement to help was in place.