Any order made by a court when dealing with an offender in respect of his offence, including imprisonment (which may take the form of a concurrent sentence or suspended sentence), a fine, a community order, or an absolute or conditional discharge. Criminal sentencing is now governed by the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which requires courts to take into account the following purposes of sentencing: punishing offenders, reduction of crime (including its reduction by deterrence), the reform and rehabilitation of offenders, the protection of the public, and the making of reparations by offenders to persons affected by their offences (see feature Theories of Punishment). This provision, however, does not apply where the penalty for an offence is fixed in law (such as the life sentence required upon conviction for murder). Under the 2003 Act, the Sentencing Guidelines Council is empowered to promulgate sentencing guidelines for various offences, which sentencing judges must take into account in relevant cases. Sentences may be increased if the offence was racially or religiously aggravated, or was based on hostility towards the victim on the basis of his actual or presumed sexual orientation or disability.
Before the sentence is imposed, the prosecution must present the judge with the accused's antecedents and the defence may then make a plea in mitigation of the sentence. The sentencing court will normally obtain a pre-sentence report prior to imposing a custodial sentence or a community order with requirements upon a defendant. Sentence must be pronounced in open court by the presiding judge and is almost always pronounced in the presence of the accused. The sentence may be altered (or rescinded) within 28 days by the trial court, and there is a power to postpone sentence for up to six months (see deferred sentence). Magistrates courts may not impose sentences of imprisonment exceeding six months upon any defendant, and they may not impose any sentence of imprisonment upon first time offenders or defendants who are not legally represented in court. Where the magistrates' court considers that its powers of sentencing are insufficient for the case, it may commit an offender to the Crown Court for sentencing. There is usually a right of appeal against sentence to the Court of Appeal. The Attorney General may refer cases to the Court of Appeal (with its permission) when Crown Court sentences appear unduly lenient. See also dangerous offender; juvenile offender; repeat offender.