Criminal Law Penalties - Penalty Units - Armstrong Legal Brisbane

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This article was written by Kathryn Sampias

Kathryn Sampias has a Bachelor of Laws, a Bachelor of Arts and a Graduate Diploma in Journalism. Kathryn was admitted to practice in 2005 and practised law for more than eight years, working both in private practice (mainly in defence litigation for professional indemnity disputes) and in the public service for the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) in enforcement.

Penalty Units (Qld)


The maximum sentence for criminal offences in Queensland is often stated as a number of months or years of imprisonment. However, for some offences, the maximum punishment for the crime is written as a number of penalty units (sometimes abbreviated to PU). The legislation which governs how penalties and sentences are handed down, including penalty units, is the Penalties and Sentencing Act 1992.

A magistrate or judge that is handing down a sentence for a crime in Queensland will take into account various factors when deciding what is the most appropriate punishment. These considerations include:

  • how serious the crime was that was committed;
  • how the crime impacted any victims;
  • the personal circumstances of the offender;
  • the criminal history of the offender; and
  • the offender’s co-operation with the police.

If the crime took place under circumstances of aggravation, meaning that the seriousness of the crime was increased in some way, then a greater penalty may be applied. A crime may be said to have been committed with aggravation where a weapon was used or where the crime was co-ordinated and committed by more than one person.

How much is a penalty unit?

A penalty unit corresponds to an amount of money that from time to time can be changed. One penalty unit in Queensland, for most offences, currently corresponds to the dollar amount of $133.45. This has been the case since July 2020. For offences against certain local laws or laws under specific legislation, such as the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, the dollar amount for a penalty unit is slightly less. The value is increased by 3.5% each year on 1 July unless the Queensland Treasurer nominates another amount before 1 March.

What is the benefit of penalty units?

The existence of penalty units allows for the values of fines to be updated quickly and easily where changes in the value of currency occur due to factors such as inflation. It also allows for penalties to be easily changed where there is a change in public policy.

Corresponding amount of jail time

A penalty unit usually has a corresponding amount of jail time that can be served instead of payment. This can be served by those not willing or able to pay the fine or where a magistrate or judge deems that jail time is more appropriate.

Calculating fines using penalty units

Where offences have a prescribed infringement notice, the amount of the fine is rounded down to the nearest whole dollar. For other offences, the amount must be rounded down to the nearest 5 cent increment.

An example: bringing alcohol into a prohibited area

In Queensland, there are certain areas where alcohol is prohibited or restricted. In these areas, if you bring in an amount of alcohol that is over the allowed limit, you are committing an offence. This offence is usually made punishable by a number of penalty units. The maximum penalty units that can be issued as punishment for this offence are as follows:

  • first offence – 375 penalty units which translates to $50,043;
  • second offence – 525 penalty units which translates to $70,061 (alternatively six months imprisonment);
  • further offences – 750 penalty units which translates to $100,087 (alternatively 18 months imprisonment).

Punishments other than sentences

Sometimes a punishment can be issued for an offence that is not a criminal sentence or a penalty unit. This is usually the case in circumstances where the government wants to eradicate a certain type of crime. One example of a punishment that can be imposed in addition to a criminal sentence or penalty unit is the confiscation or impounding of a vehicle. This punishment is available for the offence of hooning or driving without care and attention. The penalty units that are available as a punishment for this offence are a maximum of forty. Alternatively, an offender can be imprisoned for six months.

If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.

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