Sentencing Video Script

Scotland’s courts deal with a wide range of offences, from careless driving to murder. So, how do judges decide the right sentence for each offence? This short film, made by the Scottish Sentencing Council, helps explain.

Every crime is different and no two court cases are ever the same. But the way judges decide a sentence is the same. When sentencing, judges will consider a number of factors, including how serious the crime was. For example, did it result in harm being caused? Or was it pre-planned The judge will also consider the offender’s circumstances. 

Let’s take a look at one example. Jack is 18. He’s just started his first job and goes to a nightclub to celebrate. He drinks too much and wanders around the dance floor, stumbling into people and swearing at them.

When a door steward leads Jack outside, he starts a fight with her, punching her in the face, causing bruising. The police charge him with several offences. These offences mean he must appear in court.

There are three types of criminal court in Scotland. The Justice of the Peace, or JP, court deals with the least serious offences such as speeding. More serious cases, including most assaults, are heard in the sheriff court. The most serious cases of all, such as murder, are heard in the High Court.

Maximum sentences are set by the Scottish Parliament and they are different in the three types of court. For example, the maximum prison sentence that can be given in the Justice of the Peace Court is 60 day In the sheriff court it is up to five years, and, in the High Court, a life sentence is possible.

Jack’s case is heard in the Sheriff Court. He pleads guilty to the charges. The sheriff is told that Jack has never been in trouble with the police before and is very sorry for how he behaved.

She must now decide what sentence to give him.

So what sort of things might she consider? When Jack punched the door steward, he left her with bruising to her face - he caused an injury. The more serious the injury, the more serious the crime, and in most cases, the more serious the crime, the more severe the sentence.

While what Jack did is serious, there are things that would have made the offence even more serious, such as If he had attacked a vulnerable person, or if he had committed similar crimes before.

Other factors can make a sentence less severe. Jack pled guilty – he admitted the crime as soon as he could. This will spare his victim and other witnesses from having to give evidence at a trial and save the court time and money.

Jack is also sorry for the harm he caused.

In deciding the sentence, the Sheriff also needs to consider Jack’s circumstances: whether he is able to pay a fine, for example, and what sentence might help him change his behaviour so he doesn’t offend again. This will save someone else becoming his victim in the future.

The Sheriff will also consider the concerns of the wider community and whether people need to be protected from Jack.

Judges in Scotland have a number of sentencing options. In the least serious cases, a judge can give an offender a warning, called an admonition. No sentence is given, but the admonition is noted on a criminal record.

The judge can also fine the offender, ordering them to pay money to the court.

Another option is to order the offender to do certain things to pay back to the community. Community Payback Orders can involve unpaid work, like gardening tasks in public parks; supervision – working with a social worker to change offending behaviour; or treatment for alcohol or drug addiction. These are not soft options and, if an offender doesn’t follow a Community Payback Order, they can be sent back to court and may be given a prison sentence.

Prison is the most severe sentence and is normally only used if there is no other way of dealing with an offender. Offenders who are sent to prison will normally spend at least half of their time in custody, and the rest in the community. If they commit another crime in the community before their sentence is finished, they can be sent straight back to prison.

If a person has committed a serious crime, they can be put ‘on parole’ in the community when they are released. This means that they must obey certain rules. Conditions can include wearing an electronic tag to restrict where they may go.

Anyone under the age of 21 is sentenced to detention in a young offenders’ institution instead of prison.

If you were the sheriff in Court hearing Jack’s case, what sentence would you give him? Find out what happened in this scenario on the Scottish Sentencing Council website at

The Scottish Sentencing Council prepares guidelines on sentencing for different crimes to help judges make their decisions and to help people better understand how sentences are decided. These guidelines promote consistency in sentencing across Scotland whether a crime is committed in Lerwick or Livingston.