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Mitigating Factors in Law: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson, we will discuss what mitigating factors are in our legal system, and provide some explanation of how they function in the criminal justice process, in addition to offering a real-world case example.

Who's to Blame?

If you have watched any news lately, it is nearly impossible not to have heard a story of tragic events, like a mass shooting or a major robbery. We all know that most people would not do these sort of things, and yet there are still some who do. If the suspect survives the incident and is brought to justice, he may claim any number of mitigating factors that reduce his culpability, or legal responsibility, in the commission of a crime.

The argument is that without these factors present, the individual might not have committed the crime and thus should be given some reduction in the penalties in sentencing to account for these factors. It is up to the judge presiding over a criminal case to determine whether or not these mitigating factors can be considered in determining the fate of the accused. It is also important to note that these factors do not remove all blameworthiness from the accused, meaning that these circumstances are not exculpatory because they do not justify or excuse an accused defendant's actions.

Common Mitigating Factors

There are many various mitigating factors that can be considered in a court of law for a defendant, an individual that is accused of having committed a crime. These factors must be relevant to the commission of the crime in order to be considered. Accordingly, we will discuss some of the more frequently used mitigating factors.

Minor Role

If a defendant only has a minor role in a crime, this may be considered. For instance, if a tractor trailer driver is found to be in possession of a large amount of drugs but can offer some proof that he had no knowledge of their presence, he only plays a minor role in this crime. Alternatively, if an armed robbery occurs, an individual who was merely a passenger in the car but had no weapon and was simply present during the commission of the crime would play a minor role in that crime.

Mental Illness/Diminished Capacity

Sometimes crimes are committed by individuals with any number of mental illnesses or who are in some way below average mentally and/or emotionally. In these cases, the court must weigh the defendant's mental status in their decisions.

Difficult Childhood Circumstances

Childhood circumstances may be considered. If an individual was physically, psychologically, verbally, or sexually abused for an extended period of time, he may be less culpable for his crimes. His ability to restrain himself from committing a crime or to fully determine right from wrong may be impeded as a result of this abuse, so the court will weigh these circumstances.

Substance Addiction

Abuse of substances often comes up in court proceedings. The psychological powers of addiction may supersede rational thought or the ability to make sound decisions. Experts in the field of substance addiction may weigh in during the legal process.

Relative Necessity

An offender may steal in order to provide for her family as she does not have the cash or other means to pay for necessities, such as bread or milk. (Naturally, this would not include luxury items, such as televisions, stereos, or computers that are not necessary to sustain human life.)

Unusual Circumstances

Sometimes the circumstances of a crime call for extra attention. If an esteemed trader on Wall Street lost his job after a hard day at work because a trade he made led to investors losing millions, he might head to a bar after his termination. When he leaves that bar to go home, highly intoxicated, and causes a car accident, the events that led him to drink could be considered mitigating factors.

Victim Culpability

The victim's role in his own victimization may function to diminish culpability of the accused offender. In criminology, this is also referred to as victim precipitation. The classic example of this is two men involved in a bar fight. The man who instigates the fight (Man 1) and actively participates in it is then assaulted by Man 2. Man 1 is hit in such a fashion that he dies from his injuries. The defense could argue that the accused (Man 2) is less culpable as a result of the victim's role in the fight.

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