The maximum penalty for an offence is the heaviest sentence that can be imposed for that offence. The offence and its maximum penalty are defined in legislation.
The maximum penalty reflects parliament’s view on the seriousness of an offence. It is reserved for the most serious examples of an offence committed by the worst type of offender.
For example, the maximum penalty for armed robbery in Victoria is 25 years’ imprisonment. However, the most common imprisonment length for armed robbery from 2014–15 to 2018–19 was three to four years. For rape, the maximum penalty is 25 years’ imprisonment, but the most common imprisonment length for rape from 2013–14 to 2018–19 was four to five years.
Maximum penalties for many offences are set according to a penalty scale. This is outlined in section 109 of the Sentencing Act 1991 (Vic).
The penalty scale for imprisonment has nine levels, ranging from Level 9 (six months’ imprisonment) to Level 1 (life imprisonment).
The penalty scale for fines has 11 levels, ranging from Level 12 (1 penalty unit) to Level 2 (3,000 penalty units). Fines are not available for Level 1 offences.
From 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021, the value of one penalty unit is $165.22. A maximum fine of 3,000 penalty units works out at $495,660.
Some sample offences are ranked according to the penalty scale for imprisonment in the table below. The table includes the maximum term of imprisonment and maximum fine for the offences.
Table: Penalty scale for imprisonment
|Level||Maximum prison term||Maximum fine||Sample offences|
|Level 1||Life imprisonment||n.a.||Murder
Trafficking in a drug of dependence (large commercial quantity)
|Level 2||25 years||3,000 penalty units||Manslaughter
Sexual penetration of a child under 12
Arson causing death
|Level 3||20 years||2,400 penalty units||Intentionally causing serious injury
Culpable driving causing death
|Level 4||15 years||1,800 penalty units||Recklessly causing serious injury
Handling stolen goods
Trafficking in a drug of dependence (not a commercial quantity)
|Level 5||10 years||1,200 penalty units||Threats to kill
Negligently causing serious injury
Knowingly possess child pornography
|Level 6||5 years||600 penalty units||Recklessly causing injury
Possession of a drug of dependence (for the purpose of trafficking)
|Level 7||2 years||240 penalty units||Going equipped to steal|
|Level 8||1 year||120 penalty units||Cultivation of a narcotic plant (not for the purpose of trafficking)
Possession of a drug of dependence (not for the purpose of trafficking)
|Level 9||6 months||60 penalty units||Concealing the birth of a child|
Maximum Penalties and Victorian Courts
For a single offence, judges and magistrates may not impose a heavier sentence than the maximum penalty for the offence.
The Sentencing Act 1991 (Vic) restricts the sentences that magistrates can order in the Magistrates’ Court to:
- two years’ imprisonment for a single offence
- five years’ imprisonment for multiple offences.
Where an individual or corporation has been convicted of an indictable offence tried summarily, magistrates can order:
- fines of up to 500 penalty units ($82,610 in 2020–21) for individuals
- fines of up to 2,500 penalty units ($413,050 in 2020–21) for corporations.
Judges in the County and Supreme Courts (the higher courts) may impose the maximum penalty stated for the offence in legislation.
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