4513.0 - Criminal Courts, Australia, 2009-10 Quality Declaration 
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 27/06/2011   
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Contents >> Sentence length >> DERIVING SENTENCE LENGTH


A defendant can receive:

  • a single sentence for a single offence proven guilty,
  • a single sentence for multiple offences proven guilty,
  • multiple sentences for multiple offences proven guilty, and/or
  • multiple sentences for one offence proven guilty.

The main aim of this collection of sentence length information is to provide a direct relationship between the offences that a defendant has been proven guilty of and the sentences handed down by the courts. In order to achieve this link a principal sentence is derived for each defendant using a hierarchical sentence type classification (refer to Appendix 4 in Criminal Courts, Australia (cat. no. 4513.0)). The highest/most serious penalty that is associated with this principal sentence is then selected and the offence type associated with this penalty is used to determine the defendant’s principal offence. This direct relationship is illustrated in the diagram below.

The statistics in this summary relate to defendants sentenced to a custodial order, so in all cases the sentence quantum is the length of time associated with a sentence, referred to here as sentence length. However, sentence quantum can also represent an amount of money when it is associated with a fine or the number of points associated with a driving demerit.

Concurrent and cumulative sentences

The issue of concurrent and cumulative sentences arises where a defendant has committed multiple offences or where the defendant, while subject to a sentence for a previous offence, is convicted of a further offence.

Concurrent sentences are sentences which commence together, the shorter sentences being subsumed into the longest sentence. A cumulative sentence is one which commences at the termination of a preceding sentence or sentences.

The method for deriving sentence length selects the longest sentence in each case. For example, a defendant has been proven guilty of one offence of assault and one offence of threatening behaviour. For the assault he is sentenced to two months in custody and for the threatening behaviour, one month in custody. The two sentences are to be served concurrently, that is, they commence on the same date and end after the longest term has been served. In this case the sentence length selected for the defendant is two months (the longest term). If these same two sentences were ordered to be sentenced cumulatively, that is one being served directly after the other; the longest sentence (two months) would again be selected.

Non-parole and parole periods

When sentencing an offender to imprisonment, a judge or magistrate will announce the total period of the sentence and then will set a non-parole period. A non-parole period is the minimum amount of time that an offender will be kept imprisoned before being eligible to be released on parole. The earliest release date is the end of the non-parole period. Certain specified serious offences have standard non-parole periods set in legislation. This is what is usually referred to as a ‘minimum sentence’. The standard non-parole period is regarded as a reference point for the judicial officer and aggravating and mitigating circumstances may then be taken into account when determining the sentence.

All states and territories have a minimum period that must be served before the defendant is eligible to apply for parole. This period generally ranges from 12 months and up to 3 years for less serious offences; and longer periods for more serious offences. However, the granting of parole at the end of the minimum period is not automatic and offenders must apply to the relevant Parole Authority for a determination of whether they will be released from custody or remain in prison until the end of the parole period.

The sentence information in this summary refers to the total period of the sentence, not the ‘minimum sentence’.

Life and indeterminate imprisonment sentences

Life and indeterminate imprisonment sentences are the most serious form of imprisonment. Defendants who are sentenced to life imprisonment may not necessarily be imprisoned for the term of their natural life. In some states and territories a minimum time to serve may be specified by the court or may be determined by an administrative body such as a Parole Board. Therefore the information for this imprisonment type may or may not have an associated sentence length.

Indeterminate sentences do not have a prescribed minimum term to serve and may be subject to a ministerial or other administrative decision as to the actual term served. Therefore this imprisonment type does not have an associated sentence length.

To ensure consistency and comparability across the states and territories, life and indeterminate imprisonment sentences are excluded from the sentence length information in this summary. The number of defendants sentenced to life and indeterminate imprisonment in 2009-10, is provided in the table below for information.



- nil or rounded to zero (including null cells)

Imprisonment with a partially suspended term

A defendant sentenced to imprisonment with a partially suspended term must be detained in prison for part of the specified term of the sentence, with the remainder of the imprisonment term suspended on the condition that the defendant will be of good behaviour. If the conditions of the good behaviour order are breached, the defendant will be returned to prison to serve the balance of the sentence.

This sentence type is available in all states and territories, except Western Australia.

Due to variability in the recording of sentence information relating to partially suspended sentences across the states and territories, this sentence type has been excluded from the sentence information in this summary. The ABS is working with courts agencies to determine a national counting rule to enable comparable sentence length information to be collected in the future. The number of defendants sentenced to imprisonment with a partially suspended term in 2009-10 is provided in the table below for information.


. .

. . not applicable

Mean and median sentence lengths

Information is presented on the mean and median sentence lengths for each offence category. The mean is the arithmetic average of the sentence lengths in a particular category and the median is the middle value in a particular category when the values are sorted in order. For more information on means and medians, refer to Statistical Language! (cat.no. 1332.0.55.002).

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