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UK Riots: Sentencing Explained

As the courts deal with offenders following the recent riots across the UK, we explain how our sentencing system works.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Magistrates and judges are independent of Government. Their sentencing decisions are based on the individual circumstances of each case and offender. That is why different offenders may be given different sentences for what might appear to be similar crimes.

To provide a consistent base for these decisions an independent body of experts, the Sentencing Council set guidelines for them to use. These provide a range of sentences that could be given for particular types of crime, including cases of theft, burglary or robbery .

Sentencing: Your questions answered

Do judges have to stick to sentencing guidelines?

When sentencing offenders, courts must follow relevant sentencing guidelines unless it would be contrary to the interests of justice to do so. So, if a judge or magistrate believes a guideline sentence doesn’t allow the interests of justice to be served, he or she can sentence outside of the guideline. In these cases, the judge or magistrate must always state the reasons for this in their sentencing remarks in open court .

What is the Sentencing Council?

The independent Sentencing Council is made up of judges and criminal justice professionals who have worked with victims and offenders. They draw up guidelines, following public consultation, on sentence lengths for different types of crime, helping the judiciary to achieve a consistent approach.

What is Government’s role?

It is Parliament’s role to specify what is a criminal offence and set the maximum penalties.

Some types of offending have been the same for centuries (for example murder) but others have changed, emerged or disappeared as new problems have surfaced, new technology has been developed and as society takes a more or less lenient view on certain actions.

Published 17 August 2011