There are a number of different types of prison sentence available to a court. Read the sections on determinate sentences, extended sentences, and life sentences to find out more. For each crime there is a range of sentences available and the judge or magistrates have to decide which type of sentence is right. When a prisoner is released from prison will depend on the type of sentence.

Will the prisoner serve the whole of their sentence in custody?

The majority of prison sentences passed in court will include time to be served in prison and time to serve in the community. This means that a prisoner will not spend the whole of their sentence in prison. The exceptions are life and extended sentences which are regulated by different rules.

How long will they be in prison for?

A number of things can affect the length of time someone will spend in prison. This includes the date the offence was committed, the length of the sentence, whether a Home Detention Curfew (HDC) is granted and whether any extra days are added as the consequence of positive adjudications.

Determinate sentences – fixed length of time

Sentences under 2 years

The rules governing when a prisoner is released vary depending on the length of the sentence and when the offence was committed. For sentences under two years the rules changed on 1 February 2015.

For offences committed on or after 1 February 2015, those who are over 18 years who receive a determinate sentence of at least 2 days but less than 2 years will be released on licence half way through their sentence. They will be on licence until the end of their sentence, with an additional period of post-sentence supervision. This is to ensure that all prisoners for sentences under two years are supervised for a period of 12 months.

Please see the table below for examples of the changes to sentences depending on when the offence was committed.

Offences committed before 1 February 2015Offences committed after 1 February 2015
SentenceTime spent in prisonRelease arrangementsTime spent in prisonRelease arrangements
6  months3 months3 months community sentence, no licence conditions or supervision3 months3 months licence and 9 months post-sentence supervision. Total supervision of 12 months
12 months6 months6 months community sentence, no licence conditions or supervision6 months6 months licence and 6 months post-sentence supervision. Total supervision of 12 months
18 months9 months9 months’ licence9 months9 months licence and 3 months post-sentence supervision. Total supervision of 12 months.


Sentences of over 2 years

Prisoners who are sentenced to two years or more will serve half their sentence in prison and serve the rest of the sentence in the community on licence.  While on licence an prisoner will be subject to supervision and the licence will include conditions. If an prisoner breaches their conditions, they may be recalled to prison.

Prisoners serving sentences of between three months and four years, with certain exceptions for violent and people convicted with sexual offences, may also be eligible for release on a home detention curfew (HDC). This allows a prisoner to be released up to 135 days (four and a half months) before their automatic release date. The prisoner will be electronically tagged and a curfew imposed. If the prisoner breaches the curfew they can be recalled to prison.

Extended sentences

Extended sentences were introduced to replace the previous IPP sentences and are only given to prisoners aged 18 or over who are considered a significant risk to the public. An extended sentence may given to a prisoner aged 18 or over when:

  • they are guilty of a specified violent or sexual offence
  • the court assesses the prisoner as a significant risk to the public of committing further specified offences
  • a sentence of imprisonment for life is not available or justified; and
  • the prisoner has a previous conviction for an offence listed in schedule 15B to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 or the current offence justifies an appropriate custodial term of at least four years.

The judge decides how long the prisoner should stay in prison and also fixes the extended licence period up to a maximum of eight years. The prisoner will either be entitled to automatic release at the two thirds point of the custodial sentence or be entitled to apply for parole at that point.

If parole is refused the prisoner will be released when their prison term ends. Following release, the person will be subject to the licence where he will remain under the supervision of the National Offender Management Service until the expiry of the extended period. The combined total of the prison term and extension period cannot be more than the maximum sentence for the offence committed.

Extended sentences can be quite complex dependent on the specifics of the case, it would be recommended to speak with the prisoner’s solicitor, or to check via the justice website for further details.

Life sentences

When a court passes a life sentence (sometimes called an indeterminate sentence) it means that the person with a conviction will be subject to that sentence for the rest of their life.  A judge must specify the minimum term (sometimes called the tariff) a prisoner must spend in prison before becoming eligible to apply for parole. The only exception to this is when a life sentence is passed with a ‘whole life order’ meaning that such an prisoner will spend the rest of their life in prison.  A life sentence always lasts for life whatever the length of the minimum term.

Mandatory life sentences

Parliament has decided that if a person is found guilty of murder, a court must give them a life sentence. A person may also be given a life sentence for offences such as rape or armed robbery. The judge will set a minimum term (the tariff) an prisoner must serve before they can be considered for release by the Parole Board. The prisoner will only be released once they are no longer deemed to pose a risk to the general public. If released, an person with an conviction serving a life sentence will remain on licence for the rest of their life. They may be recalled to prison at any time if they are considered to be a risk to the public. They do not need to have committed another offence in order to be recalled.

Whole life order

For the most serious cases, a person may be sentenced to a life sentence with a ‘whole life order.’ This means that their crime was so serious that there is no minimum term set and that they will never be released from prison.

Discretionary life sentences

There are a number of crimes for which the maximum sentence for the offence, such as rape or robbery, is life imprisonment. This does not mean that all or most people convicted of those offences will get life.

Read more about discretionary life sentences 

Watch this video from the Sentencing Council on how people with convictions are sentenced in England and Wales

This page was updated on November 2018