Overview – prison sentences

The news says that Mr Smith has just been sentenced to six months, or whatever the case may be. But what does that mean?

Age restrictions

You can only have a prison sentence if you are over 21 at the date that the Judge sentences you (there are similar but different sentences for people under 21).

What does it mean?

This is an order that a person is kept in prison for a specified, and definite period of time.

Maximums and minimums

The minimum period of a prison sentence in the Magistrates Court is 5 days. The maximum sentence that a Magistrates’ Court can pass is one of 6 months imprisonment (unless there are two either way matters, in which the court can pass a sentence of up to 12 months)

There is no minimum sentence in the Crown Court and, in theory, no maximum (other than the maximum sentence for the offence) although in practice sentences of over 20 years are very unusual (and reserved almost exclusively for large scale drug importation).


The rules surrounding exactly when people will be released are very complex [INSERT LINK], but in essence, you will serve half the prison sentence actually in custody (in the prison) and then be released. The remainder of the prison sentence will be spent supervised in the community under the probation service.

Sometimes, people are released earlier on an electronic tag. Again, the rules are complicated, and it depends on the length of sentence and type of offence that lead to the prison sentence, but you have to have served six weeks and at least a quarter of the sentence and you can be released 135 days earlier.


If you break the terms set by the probation service, they you can be recalled to prison (unless this is because of a new offence, there will usually be a warning given first). If that happens, then you will be arrested and taken back to prison.

There are different sorts of recall, sometimes it will be for a fixed term of 28 days, sometimes to serve the amount of time from when the ‘notice of recall’ is issued to when your sentence would have expired. In either case, you can apply to the Parole Board to be released.

Sometimes you may spend more or less time than half the stated sentence in prison. If you misbehave in prison you can be ‘charged’ with an offence and, if it is found proved, have extra days added to the sentence.

9 thoughts on “Overview – prison sentences

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  7. Emorp

    Does it make no difference whether the plea is not guilty or guilty for this ‘half served’ sentence then? I thought you got the reduction if you plead guilty, or is that something different?

    1. Dan Bunting

      Sorry for the late reply. Pleading guilty or not relates to how long the sentence passed by the judge will be. After sentence, responsibility for all prisoners and their release will pass to the Prison Service and the only question is the length of the sentence – in effect it will be release after half (generally).

      So, if someone is charged with GBH that merits 6 years after a trial then if they have a trial and are found guilty they will get 6 years and serve half, so 3 years.

      If they plead guilty straight off then will get credit of 1/3 and get a sentence of 4 years and be released after half of that – so 2 years.

      Hope that that makes sense?

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