Social Science Courses / Course / Chapter

Understanding Mitigating Factors

Travis Hartin, Melanie Norwood
  • Author
    Travis Hartin

    Travis has taught college-level statistics, research methods, and psychology courses for eight years. Travis has a Master’s degree and PhD in experimental psychology from Kent State University with a focus on student learning and cognitive research.

  • 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.

Explore mitigating factors. Learn what a mitigating factor is and how it differs from aggravating circumstances. See several mitigating factors examples. Updated: 06/22/2022

Table of Contents


What is a Mitigating Factor?

Mitigating factors are information or facts that can be presented in court in order to reduce the severity or seriousness of a crime committed or the punishments issued if a defendant is found to be guilty. The function of mitigating factors is so that a judge can consider the various factors that may have influenced a person to commit a crime, such as mental illness or drug addiction. For example, someone who has been prosecuted for drug possession may have their sentence mitigated because they have a medical history of being addicted to certain narcotics.

Mitigating in court is not the same as exculpatory factors, which are used to either prove someone did not commit a crime or to provide a valid justification or excuse as to why someone committed a crime. The judge has the power to decide whether or not mitigating factors can be considered during court hearings.

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Aggravating Factors in Law: Definition & Sentencing

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:03 Who's to Blame?
  • 1:08 Common Mitigating Factors
  • 4:32 Major Case Example
  • 5:31 Lesson Summary
Save Timeline
Speed Speed

Mitigating Factors vs Aggravating Factors

Whereas mitigating factors are brought up in court to lessen the severity of a crime, aggravating circumstances are factors that can increase the severity of a crime. Aggravating circumstances include things like repeated offenses, a lack of remorse on behalf of the defendant, committing a crime in front of a child, and the heinousness of the crime. Aggravating factors may lead to harsher sentences. For example, the Supreme Court in Magwood v. Patterson (2010) decided that murdering an on duty sheriff is an aggravating factor that can justify the death penalty.

Common Mitigating Circumstances

During court hearings, it is common for attorneys to use a mitigation defense. Here are some of the most common types of mitigating circumstances:

Minor Role

The fact that the defendant only played a minor role in a crime can be used as a mitigating factor. For example, someone who drove another person to a location where a drug deal took place may have their sentence or penalty reduced because they only played the role of driving someone to the drug deal rather than dealing or possessing the drugs.

Mental Illness/ Diminished Capacity

Sometimes, a defense attorney can use mental illness or impaired capacity as a mitigating factor. For example, a person may have cognitive or mental impairments that render them unable to understand the ramifications of the crime that they committed. In this case, the judge may reduce the penalty because the person lacks the ability to understand their actions.

Difficult Childhood Circumstances

If the defendant has a difficult personal history, such as having experienced difficult family or childhood circumstances, the judge may decide to mitigate the sentencing. For example, a defense attorney may claim that the defendant only committed a violent act because they were abused as a child. Had the defendant experienced a normal childhood, the attorney may argue that the defendant would never have committed a crime.

Substance Addiction

Addiction to a substance can also be used as a mitigating factor in a trial. For example, someone who was arrested and charged with possession of opiates may claim that they are addicted to drugs and that this drove them to commit a crime. In this instance, the defense attorney will have to make the case that the defendant's drug addiction is not just an excuse or motivation for committing the crime. Also, the defense attorney may present evidence that the defendant has made an attempt to seek drug rehabilitation as a way to convince the judge to consider drug addiction as a mitigating factor.

Relative Necessity

Relative necessity is a mitigating factor in which a defendant committed a crime in order to obtain some type of necessary resource to live or to provide for their family. For example, someone may have stolen meat from a grocery store in order to feed his family after recently being laid off from his job. The defense attorney may argue that the defendant only committed the crime to feed his starving family.

Unusual Circumstances

An unusual circumstance is a mitigating factor in which someone commits a crime because of a heightened emotion state or because they experienced some type of provocation. For example, someone may lash out and commit a violent act because they were emotionally distraught over having just lost a loved one. In this case, the defense attorney may argue that the defendant only committed the crime because they were experiencing extreme stress.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Frequently Asked Questions

What does a mitigating circumstance mean?

The term mitigate means to lessen in severity. Mitigating circumstances are factors associated with a crime that can lessen the severity of that crime.

What are mitigating and aggravating factors?

Mitigating factors are facts that can be used to decrease the severity of a crime or the sentence someone receives. Aggravating factors are facts that can be used to increase the severity of a crime or the sentence someone receives.

What is an example of a mitigating factor?

An example of a mitigating factor is drug addiction. A person who is charged with possession of narcotics may have their sentence lessened if they have a history of drug addiction and can provide evidence that they have pursued rehabilitation.

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back

Resources created by teachers for teachers

Over 30,000 video lessons & teaching resources‐all in one place.
Video lessons
Quizzes & Worksheets
Classroom Integration
Lesson Plans

I would definitely recommend to my colleagues. It’s like a teacher waved a magic wand and did the work for me. I feel like it’s a lifeline.

Jennifer B.
Jennifer B.
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account