When judges or juries sentence a defendant in a criminal case, they typically consider any specific facts that could justify modifying the sentence in some way. In some cases, the facts in the case mean the judge or jury will hand down a harsher sentence if there are aggravating circumstances that make the crime more serious.
In other cases, however, specific facts cause the judge or jury to decrease the length of the sentence or make it otherwise more lenient. These facts are called mitigating circumstances.
The defendant is still guilty of committing a crime, but the facts cause the judge to cut the defendant something of a break. There are also cases in which mitigating circumstances are so compelling they lead to a dismissal of some charges.
What Qualifies as a Mitigating Circumstance?
There is no hard and fast definition of a mitigating circumstance. A mitigating factor might have something to do with the nature of the criminal act, or it could even be specific to the person who carried out the crime.
Every case is different, so judges typically address mitigating circumstances on a case by case basis. They take into account a defendant’s criminal history, reputation, and standing in the community.
If a crime seems completely out of character for the person, the judge may look for mitigating circumstances that might explain the person’s behavior. Examples of mitigating circumstances include:
- The defendant had a minor role in the crime – If the person wasn’t a major player in the crime, they are likely to get a lesser sentence than people with greater involvement.
- Self-defense – In certain cases, a person who acted in self-defense may be given a lighter sentence. This is typically seen most often in cases where someone was assaulted first and then reacted with more force than necessary to protect themselves.
- Emotional or financial stress – In some cases, crimes committed due to financial stress are actually a separate defense called “necessity.”
- The defendant didn’t cause harm – In some cases, the defendant’s behavior is still a crime, but the court might impose a lighter sentence because they acted humanely toward another person while carrying out the crime.
- Alcohol and substance abuse – Addiction may be considered a mitigating circumstance, especially if the person shows remorse and commits to completing a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program.
- Past trauma – Judges and juries may also decide to reduce a defendant’s sentence if the person has experienced serious trauma in the past.
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