Sentencing definitions

Our videos and the list below can help you understand commonly used sentencing terms.

The videos feature members of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Panel and provide a simple spoken explanation of commonly used legal terms and a straightforward written definition, while the list of definitions covers more than 100 legal and sentencing terms.

A Community Service Order can be between 40 and 240 hours of community work. These hours are normally completed within 12 months. A court can't make the order unless you agree.

If you are on an order there are conditions you have to follow including:

You must not break the law during the period of this order.

You must report to a community corrections office, usually within 48 hours of being sentenced.

You must report to, and be visited by, a community corrections officer.

You must tell a community corrections officer if you change your work or home address

And, you must get permission if you need to leave Queensland.

Definition list

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Absolute discharge

Release without a conviction being recorded and without any further punishment.

Accused

A person who has been charged with an offence but who has not yet been found guilty or not guilty. Also referred to as a defendant.

Acquittal

A finding that a person is not guilty of a criminal charge.

Adjournment (court proceedings)

To suspend court proceedings to start again at a future date or in a different place, or indefinitely.

Agreed facts

Facts agreed to by the defence and the prosecution regarding the charges before the court. Usually presented after a plea of guilty.

Aggravating factor

A fact or detail about the offence, the victim, or the sentenced person that may increase the sentence a court gives.

Allege/Alleged

To accuse someone of having done something illegal. The prosecution does this and must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt if the defendant does not plead guilty.

Antecedents

Background details about a person, like their age, relationship status, employment history, and criminal history (this usually includes details of past convictions and penalties).

Appeal

When a party to a court case challenges a decision, and a higher court reviews it.

Parties are people or entities involved in court proceedings. For example, for appeals against sentence, the person sentenced and the prosecution. The Attorney-General can also appeal.

Learn more about the sentencing appeal process.

Appellant

The party appealing a court’s decision. This can be the defendant or the prosecution. The other party in the appeal is called the respondent. However, the term ‘applicant’ is used instead of ‘appellant’, in 3 specific types of appeal (see below).

Applicant

A person who wants to appeal to the Court of Appeal against their sentence, or against their conviction if it involves a question of fact. This term is also used to describe anyone who wants to appeal to the High Court.

The person wishing to appeal is called an applicant because in these cases, they do not have an immediate legal right to appeal.

The appeal cannot be heard unless the court first allows it (‘grants leave’ to appeal).

Bail

A promise (undertaking) to come back to court for trial or sentencing. Bail may have extra conditions, like reporting to the police, living at a certain place, or a surety (money put up by someone else to guarantee the person will come back to court). It is an offence for an adult to breach bail.

Banning order

An order, made in addition to sentence, banning an offender entering a certain licensed premises (e.g. nightclub or bar) or entering a particular area near a licensed premises during certain hours, or attending a particular public event at which alcohol will be sold.

Balance of probabilities

This is the standard of proof, or level of proof, courts must apply to decide what facts they should sentence someone on after the person has been convicted of an offence. This is applied when either the prosecution or defence do not agree with an allegation of fact.

The court must be satisfied that it is more probable than not that the allegation is true. This is also the standard of proof for civil cases.

Beyond reasonable doubt

This is the standard of proof that the prosecution must meet before a person accused of a crime can be found guilty.

Breach

To break a court order (also called a contravention).

Case

The prosecution of one or more charges against a person in court.

Case law

Law developed through decisions made by courts in previous cases. This includes decisions about sentencing and how to interpret legislation.

This is also known as common law and precedent.

Charge

A formal allegation made on arrest, or in court, that a person has committed an offence.

Childrens Court

Special courts at the Magistrates Courts level dealing with criminal offences committed by children.

Childrens Court of Queensland

A special court at the District Court level dealing with more serious criminal offences committed by children, and appeals from the Childrens Court.

Circumstance of aggravation

A fact that is part of an offence, making the sentenced person liable to a greater punishment than the penalty that applies to the basic (simpliciter) version of that offence.

An example is being armed with a weapon when committing robbery. A circumstance of aggravation must be specifically made part of the charge if it is to apply.

Common law

Law developed through decisions made by courts in previous cases. This includes decisions about sentencing and how to interpret legislation.

This is also known as case law and precedent.

Commonwealth offence

An offence committed against Commonwealth legislation, such as Centrelink fraud, telecommunications offences, offences at an airport or on an aircraft, terrorism, people smuggling, drug importation, and some internet and child pornography material offences.

Committal hearing

A process in a Magistrates Court to send (commit) indictable offences to either the District Court or Supreme Court.

Committed for trial or sentence

To be sent (committed) to a higher court for trial or sentence.

If the accused person enters a plea of guilty, they are committed for sentence. Otherwise, they are committed for trial.

Community Justice Group

Community Justice Groups (CJGs) are run by members of the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

They provide submissions to courts on bail and sentencing. CJGs provide a community-based response to local issues, working with defendants and cooperatively with magistrates, police, corrective services personnel, and staff from government agencies.

Community service order

An order to do unpaid community service for between 40 and 240 hours, usually within 12 months of conviction, and to comply with reporting and other conditions.

Compensation order

An order, made in addition to any other sentence, to pay for property taken, destroyed, damaged or interfered with, or for any personal injury caused by an offence.

Complainant

The person who makes the complaint to the State against the defendant. The complainant is the person who has suffered harm directly because of a criminal offence.

If the defendant pleads or is found guilty, these terms can change to victim and offender.

Concurrent sentences

Individual sentences of imprisonment for different offences, ordered to be served at the same time.

This means any shorter sentence is included in the longest (or ‘head’) sentence.

For example, a sentence of 5 years and a sentence of 2 years served concurrently means that an offender must serve a total of 5 years’ imprisonment (the head sentence).

Contravention

When a court order is not followed (also called a breach).

Control order

An order, made in addition to a sentence, and in circumstances relating to serious organised crime or criminal organisations.

A control order imposes conditions to protect the public by preventing, restricting or disrupting the person's involvement in serious criminal activity.

Conviction

A finding that a person is guilty of an offence, including because the person pleads guilty.

Count

A distinct charge on an indictment.

Court of Appeal

A division of the Supreme Court. The final court for all appeals in Queensland. It hears appeals from the District Court and trial division of the Supreme Court. Only the High Court is superior.

Court order (criminal proceedings)

A direction by a court. This might include telling a person to do something (like come to court again) or not to do something, and what sentence the court has imposed.

Court ordered parole

A parole order where the parole release date is fixed by the court. This means the offender is automatically released on that date.

The court must fix a date if the offender is sentenced to 3 years’ imprisonment or less – but not if the sentence is for a sexual or serious violent offence, or an existing parole order was legally cancelled by the new sentence.

Crimes

The most serious type of indictable offences.

Criminal offences

These are split up into 3 types: crimes, misdemeanours and simple offences.

The first 2 types are also classed as indictable offences.

Criminal history

A document showing any convictions recorded by a court against a person for proven offences. It includes the penalty imposed.

Crown

The prosecution may be referred to as the Crown, represented by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (either the Queensland or Commonwealth offices).

Culpability

Blameworthiness — i.e. how morally responsible the person is for the offence and for the harm he or she caused.

For example, someone who plans to commit an offence in advance will generally be treated as more culpable than someone who commits it on the spur of the moment.

Cumulative sentences

Individual sentences, given for each offence, that are ordered to be served one after the other, rather than at the same time (concurrent sentences).

For example, a sentence of 5 years and a sentence of 2 years served cumulatively would make a head sentence of 7 years’ imprisonment.

Custodial sentencing order

An order that involves a term of imprisonment being imposed on the offender.

Custody

Detention of an adult in a prison or watch-house.

This may be while they are serving a sentence of imprisonment, or because they have been denied bail and are on remand (also known as pre-sentence custody if the person is convicted of the offence or offences charged), waiting to have the charge finalised.

Defence

‘The defence’ describes the defendant, and his or her legal advisors.

A defence, in law, is a legal reason why a person is not guilty of an offence (e.g. self-defence).

Partial defences also exist that can result in a person being found guilty of a less serious offence (e.g. manslaughter rather than murder).

Defendant

The person who has been charged with an offence but who has not yet been found guilty or not guilty. The term can be used interchangeably with accused.

Diminished responsibility

A partial defence to the charge of murder.

An accused must show they had an abnormal state of mind (‘abnormality of mind’) that substantially impaired their capacity to: understand what they were doing, or control their actions, or know that they ought not do the act that made up the offence. The abnormal state of mind may be caused by a developmental condition or induced by disease, injury or inherent causes.

If the accused establishes the defence of diminished responsibility, the charge is reduced from murder to manslaughter.

Discretion

Discretion means choice. For most offences heard in Queensland courts, sentencing outcomes are not automatic. This allows courts to choose the sentence that is most appropriate in each case, by weighing up all the different things the court must or may consider.

District Court

The second level of the Queensland court system above the Magistrates Courts and below the Supreme Court.

It deals with serious criminal offences such as rape, child sexual offending, armed robbery and many serious drug offences.

The District Court can also hear an appeal against a sentence imposed in the Magistrates Courts.

Driver licence disqualification

An order, made as part of, or in addition to, any sentence that disqualifies a person from holding or obtaining a Queensland driver licence or from doing so for a specified period.

Drug and Alcohol Court

A special type of Magistrates Court that provides an intensive and targeted response to adults with a severe substance use disorder directly associated with their offending. It connects the person and their families and friends to support, treatment and services.

Watch our following video and follow an person through the Drug and Alcohol Court.

Drug and alcohol treatment order

A special sentencing order of the Drug and Alcohol Court. The treatment order is a prison sentence that is suspended while the sentenced person participates in intensive rehabilitation programs under supervision in the community.

Evidence

Proof of an alleged fact. This can include what a witness says happened, documents (including recordings, text messages, drawings and photographs), things (e.g. a knife) and facts that a court accepts as evidence of facts in the case.

Ex tempore sentencing remarks

Sentencing remarks delivered orally at the end of the sentence hearing. This is the most common sentencing approach used by Queensland courts.

Fine

A penalty requiring a person to pay an amount of money within a certain period of time.

Good behaviour bond

A non-custodial order in the form of a document that the sentenced person signs, promising not to break the law for a set period. It can also set an amount of money that must be paid if they break this promise. Also known as a recognisance.

Graffiti removal order

An order to remove graffiti, usually within 12 months of conviction.

Grounds of appeal

The reason/s why the party appealing a decision says the decision made by a magistrate, judge or jury was wrong.

Head sentence — imprisonment

The total period of imprisonment imposed taking into account, if more than one prison sentence is imposed, whether they are ordered to be served concurrently or cumulatively.

High Court of Australia

The highest court in the Australian judicial system. The High Court only deals with legal matters of wider public importance and is not a sentencing court.

Higher courts

In Queensland, these are the Childrens Court of Queensland, District Court and Supreme Court.

Imprisonment

Serving a sentence in prison or, if a special type of court order is made (intensive correction order), by way of intensive correction in the community.

A sentence of imprisonment is also served in the community if the court orders it to be suspended for a period of time.

Indefinite sentence

A sentence of imprisonment with no fixed end date. It can only be ordered for some offences, and only when a court is satisfied a sentenced person is a serious danger to the community. It must be reviewed periodically.

Indictment

A written document with the charge/s (each one being called a count) bringing a person to trial in a higher court.

Indictable offences

The most serious types of criminal offences.

They are generally sentenced by the Supreme Court or District Court. However, many indictable offences can now be sentenced summarily.

Instinctive synthesis

The way Australian courts sentence, unless mandatory sentencing applies.

The judge or magistrate considers all of the relevant factors to decide what sentence to give in an individual case. These can often conflict with each other. Then, a single sentence is imposed that balances these factors.

Intensive correction order

A sentence of imprisonment of one year or less ordered to be served in the community and including intensive supervision, community service, and treatment programs.

Judge

A judge is the person in charge of cases heard in the higher courts.

In the Supreme Court, judges are called justices. They hear the case, instructs any jury (if there is a trial) and decide the sentence.

Jury

A group of (usually) 12 people selected at random from the general community for a trial if an accused person pleads not guilty to an alleged offence.

The jury decides whether the accused person is guilty or not guilty of the alleged offence but does not sentence the person. A judge decides the sentence.

Justice

Justices are the people in charge of cases heard in the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and High Court.

They are judges who are formally called justices.

Leave to appeal

Permission needed from the Court of Appeal for a sentenced person to appeal against a sentence (or a conviction if it involves a factual issue).

The test for getting leave to appeal is that a ground of appeal (the reason for making the appeal) has a reasonable prospect of succeeding because of an arguable error.

An appeal to the High Court requires ‘special leave’ (permission) to appeal no matter who brings the appeal.

Legislation

Also called statute law. Legislation consists of written laws either made or authorised by Parliament.

Life sentence The most severe fixed-term penalty possible. The minimum amount of time actually served in prison by a person sentenced to life imprisonment is set out in legislation and depends on the offence they are convicted for. The minimum amount of time they will spend in prison is 15 years. Their release on parole is then determined by the Parole Board Queensland. If released on parole, they will be on parole for the rest of their life.

Magistrate

The person in a Magistrates Court who hears the case and makes decisions about whether someone is guilty or not, and what penalty (sentence) they get.

Magistrates Courts

The first level of the Queensland courts system.

Most criminal cases are heard in these courts in some form and they impose sentences for the majority of offences (about 95 per cent).

Mandatory sentence

A minimum or fixed penalty or penalty type set by Parliament in legislation.

The court has no discretion (no choice) to give a lesser or different type of sentence.

Learn more about mandatory sentences.

Maximum penalty

The highest penalty that can be given to a person convicted of a particular offence.

Learn more about maximum penalties.

Mental Health Court

A division of the Supreme Court that decides the state of mind of people charged with criminal offences.

The court can decide whether a defendant was of unsound mind when they committed the offence and whether they are fit for trial.

Misdemeanours

Less serious forms of criminal offences that are indictable offences.

Mitigating factor

A fact or detail about the sentenced person or the offence that may reduce the severity of the sentence.

Murri Court

A special Magistrates Court that connects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander defendants to cultural and support services. This can help them make changes in their lives and deal with the reasons for their offending.

Learn more about the Murri Court.

Non-contact order

An order, in addition to another sentence, banning contact with the victim or another person, or going to or near a particular place, for a set period.

Non-custodial order

A sentencing order that is not served in custody and is not a sentence of imprisonment.

Non-parole period

The period of time set by a court that a person must serve in prison before being released on parole or becoming eligible for release on parole.

Offence

An act that makes the person doing it liable to punishment.

There are 2 kinds of offences — criminal offences and regulatory offences.

Offender

A person who has been found guilty of an offence, or who has pleaded guilty to an offence.

Offender levy

An administrative fee imposed by Parliament to help pay for law enforcement and administration costs. The levy is paid to the court registry or the State Penalties Enforcement Registry (SPER).

The amount varies depending on whether the person is sentenced in the District Court or Supreme Courts, or by a Magistrates Court.

One levy is payable for each sentencing event.

Learn more about the offender levy.

Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions

The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions represents the State of Queensland in criminal cases; also referred to as the prosecution or the Crown.

There is a different Commonwealth version that prosecutes Commonwealth crimes.

Parole

Supervised conditional release of a person from prison before the end of their prison sentence.

A person released on parole is still serving their sentence. They have to follow the conditions of the parole order. These conditions are designed to help with their rehabilitation and reintegration into the community, and to reduce the chances the person will reoffend.

Parole Board Queensland

An independent statutory authority that decides applications for parole orders under the Corrective Services Act 2006 (Qld), other than parole release dates ordered by courts (court ordered parole).

The Parole Board Queensland can also amend, suspend or cancel a parole order of a prisoner released on parole.

Parole eligibility date

The earliest date a person may be released on parole as decided by the Parole Board Queensland.

Parole release date

The date set by the court when a person must be released on parole (unless in custody for another reason).

A parole release date can only be set if certain criteria are met, such as a prison sentence of 3 years or less and not for a serious violent offence or a sexual offence.

Parolee

A person who has been released on parole.

Penalty unit

Maximum fines are expressed as set numbers of penalty units. Each penalty unit is worth a set number of dollars and cents.

This can be adjusted annually to keep pace with inflation. It allows all Queensland fines to change at the same time, in step with each other.

Plea

The response by the accused to a criminal charge — ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’.

Precedent

A court decision that creates a legal principle to be followed in similar cases in the future.

This is also known as common law and case law.

Prescribed offences

Offences listed in legislation that require or are eligible for particular action by a court.

Pre-sentence custody

The time spent by an accused person in custody before their charges are dealt with. This happens if the person is not given bail.

Also referred to as remand.

If a period of imprisonment is later imposed, time spent in pre-sentence custody is generally counted as part of the sentence, unless the court makes a different order.

Pre-sentence report

A report prepared for a court about the sentenced person to help the court to give an appropriate sentence.

These reports are usually written by corrective services officers or youth justice officers. Other types of reports that may be given to the court include expert reports prepared by psychologists and psychiatrists.

Prisoner

An offender in prison serving a custodial sentence or a person held on remand who is waiting for trial or sentence.

Probation

An order between 6 months and 3 years served in the community with monitoring and supervision.

Prosecutor/Prosecution

The police officer or lawyer who presents the case against an accused person for the State of Queensland or Commonwealth.

Also referred to as the Crown.

Recognisance

A non-custodial order in the form of a document that the sentenced person signs, promising not to break the law for a set period. It can also set an amount of money that must be paid if they break the promise.

Also known as a good behaviour bond.

Remand

The time spent by an accused person in custody before their charges are dealt with. This happens if the person is not given bail.

See pre-sentence custody.

Regulatory offences

Less serious forms of offences that police can charge a person with instead of charging them with a criminal offence. For example, unauthorised dealing with shop goods (known as shoplifting) can be charged instead of stealing.

Respondent

The person responding to a court application.

Restitution

An order to restore stolen or damaged property to its owner when an offence is committed.

Rising of the court

A very low-level sentence, not mentioned in legislation and technically classed as a form of imprisonment, that requires a sentenced person to remain in the court room until the judge or magistrate adjourns the case (the ‘rising of the court’).

Sentence

The punishment the court gives a person who has been found guilty of an offence.

Sentencing factors

The factors the court must take into account when sentencing.

Learn more about sentencing factors.

Sentencing principles

Principles developed under the common law and in legislation, that help judges and magistrates to reach a decision on the sentence to give.

They include parity, proportionality and totality.

Sentencing purposes

The legal reasons why a sentence may be given. In Queensland there are 5 purposes for sentencing adults: punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation, denunciation, and community protection (or a combination of these).

Sentencing remarks

The reasons given by the judge or magistrate for the sentence. These are generally delivered orally by the judge or magistrate (see ex tempore sentencing remarks), but can be transcribed (reproduced in writing). The sentencing judge may also prepare written remarks.

Serious violent offence

An offence declared (stated) to be a serious violent offence by the Supreme Court or District Court. A declaration can be made for certain offences (called prescribed offences) and requires the sentenced person to serve 80 per cent of the sentence (or 15 years, whichever is less) in prison before they can be released on parole.

Learn about the serious violent offence scheme.

Simpliciter

Refers to the basic version of an offence, with no circumstance of aggravation.

Specialist Domestic and Family Violence Court

A specialist Magistrates Court dealing with domestic and family violence matters.

Standard of proof

The level of certainty and degree of evidence needed to establish proof of an alleged fact.

Statute law

Laws (legislation) made by Parliament, such as the Penalties and Sentences Act 1992 (Qld).

Submissions

Verbal comments made, and written documents provided, to the court by the prosecutor and the defence to support their case.

Summarily Offences that can be tried in the Magistrates Court.

Summary trial

A trial in a Magistrates Court for summary offences and some indictable offences. There is no jury. The magistrate decides whether a person is guilty or not guilty and imposes any sentence.

Summary offences

Minor offences that generally must be prosecuted within 12 months of the offence taking place. They are heard in Magistrates Courts.

Also known as simple offences.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the highest court in Queensland. It consists of the trial division and the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court hears the most serious criminal cases, including murder, manslaughter and serious drug offences.

Surety

A person acts as a surety for an accused person if they agree to a bail condition to give up an amount of money if the accused person fails to appear in accordance with their bail undertakings.

A person can also act as a surety for a person sentenced to a good behaviour bond or recognisance, by agreeing to pay a sum of money if the sentenced person breaches that order.

Suspended sentence

A prison sentence of 5 years or less suspended in full (called a ‘wholly suspended sentence’) or in part (called a ‘partially suspended sentence’) for a set period (called an ‘operational period’) of up to 5 years.

If the sentenced person commits another offence punishable by prison during the operational period of the order, they must serve the whole of the prison sentence that was suspended , unless the court considers this would be unjust.

For example: a 12-month prison sentence suspended for 2 years means that the person must not commit another offence during the 2-year period. If they do, they risk having to serve 12 months in prison.

Undertaking

A promise to the court to do or not do certain things. This will be in the form of a court order that the person signs. A common example is a bail undertaking.

Victim

A person who has suffered harm directly because of a criminal offence, or a family member or dependant of a person who has died or suffered harm because of a criminal offence.

Victim impact statement

A written statement made by a victim that states the harm the offence has caused them. It may include attachments such as medical reports, photographs, and drawings. A victim of crime may be invited to read the statement aloud in court or have the statement read aloud for them by the prosecutor.