What is a Custodial Sentence?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 08 August 2018
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A custodial sentence is a sentence requiring the convicted party to go into custody in a jail, prison, youth center, mental hospital, or similar facility. This differs from a non-custodial sentence, where people serve their time on the outside, although they may need to attend mandatory counseling and other sessions to fulfill the terms of the sentence. Custodial sentences are usually reserved for serious crimes where a convict could pose a threat to the public or the legal system wants to hand down a harsh punishment.

While in custody, the convict does not have liberty to move and associate freely. She is held in a facility appropriate to her needs, with other prisoners, until she has served out the sentence. For people with custodial sentences, it is common to reevaluate the sentence and allow the prisoner out on parole if he has behaved well during his time in prison. This allows people to rejoin the outside world, as long as they meet some requirements.


Most custodial sentences place people in the custody of a jail, prison, or juvenile detention center, depending on the age of the offender and the crime. In some cases, prisoners may be sent to hospitals, psychiatric clinics, or drug rehabilitation facilities. Depending on the case, the prisoner could return to a conventional incarceration facility after she is stable. Patients in mental institutions usually serve out their sentences there, and their parole hearings are subject to careful review to determine if release is a safe option.

Prisoner rights for people serving custodial sentences vary by nation. Usually prisoners must receive adequate food, clothing, and bedding. They also need access to medical care. Some nations mandate access to an attorney for anyone serving a custodial sentence and may have additional health and safety requirements like access to exercise facilities and fresh air. Some facilities offer libraries and educational opportunities including classes, often with rehabilitative goals in mind to provide prisoners with skills they can use when they get out.

The length of a custodial sentence may be at the discretion of a judge or set out in sentencing guidelines. Some regions have mandatory sentencing laws, and judges must impose these penalties in the event of a conviction. Others allow more leeway, allowing a judge to consider issues like mitigating circumstances when he issues a custodial sentence. In the event of an exoneration, the prisoner will be immediately released, and may be entitled to damages if she chooses to pursue the matter in court.


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