What Are Extenuating Circumstances?

A crime may be charged as a lesser offense, or a sentence may be light, if extenuating circumstances (or mitigating factors) convince the prosecutor or judge to cut the defendant a break.

Two people rob a convenience store at gunpoint. One is a 13-year-old girl, with no criminal record, a runaway with a drug problem, who has fallen under the spell of an older man. The other is her 26-year-old boyfriend. He has a long criminal history, including other armed robberies. The robbery was his idea, and he planned the crime and obtained the weapons. Are these two people equally responsible for their criminal conduct? Do they deserve the same sentence? If not, why not?

Extenuating circumstances are facts that tend to lessen the severity of a crime or its punishment by making the defendant’s conduct understandable or less blameworthy. Extenuating circumstances might include a defendant’s young age, mental illness or addiction, or minor role in the crime. For example, people sometimes break the law while acting in accordance with their religious or cultural beliefs, and this might be considered an extenuating circumstance. A parent who is convicted of child abuse for failing to obtain medical care for a child for religious reasons might be considered less culpable than a person who does the same thing due to neglect, and might raise this issue as a defense to a criminal charge.

How Are Extenuating Circumstances Used?

In law, the concept of extenuating circumstances, sometimes called mitigating circumstances, is broad and the term may mean different things to different jurists. Sometimes, it refers onlyto factors that impact sentencing. Other times, it refers to anything short of a defense that makes the defendant’s criminal behavior less blameworthy and results in a less serious charge or sentence. Sometimes, what is an affirmative defense in some situations or states is an extenuating circumstance is others.

For example, possession of any nude or sexual image of a child under the age of 18 is a crime (child pornography). Sometimes, state laws are written in a way that takes extenuating circumstances into account. In such states, a teen who possesses a nude cell phone picture of another teen might be charged with the less serious crime of teen sexting. Even if the law is not explicit in how to deal with the defendant's age, in many states, if the defendant is also under the age of 18 and the teen depicted willingly sent the image, the crime will be punished less severely than if the defendant were an adult with a collection of computer child pornography.

Decision-makers in the criminal justice system, such as police officers, prosecutors, judges and jurors, are always considering extenuating circumstances along with all the other facts in deciding how best to handle a case. If a person with a developmental disability steals a soda from a store, a police officer might decide not to make an arrest, a prosecutor might decide not to charge the person at all or to charge a person with a less serious crime, the jury might decide not to convict, or a judge might sentence the defendant to a lighter sentence than the maximum.

Aggravating Circumstances

In contrast, aggravating circumstances make a crime more severe or serious. Common aggravating circumstances include the defendant's lengthy prior record or that the crime caused serious injury to a victim.

Capital Cases

Normally, judges, not jurors decide a defendant’s punishment, based not only on the law and the facts, but often on a probation report, which often contains many details about a defendant’s life that are not necessarily part of the criminal case. Death penalty cases are unique because, in most states, jurors decide whether to sentence a defendant to life in prison or death.

In making those decisions, jurors are first required to consider any mitigating (extenuating) circumstances. Mitigating circumstances are not defenses or excuses, but factors that tend to reduce the defendant's blame. State laws vary, but in some states, jurors are required to find the existence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances and then assign weight to these circumstances in fixing the verdict. Examples of mitigating circumstances in capital cases include the defendant's:

  • lack of a prior criminal record
  • extreme mental or emotional disturbance at the time of the crime
  • belief that the crime was justified
  • role as a minor participant in the crime
  • old age or youth (including being a minor), or
  • extreme duress.

In addition, the jury may take into account that the victim was participating in the crime with defendant; and consider any mental illness, disability, or serious intoxication that prevented defendant from understanding or controlling his or her behavior, as well as any other circumstances that lessen the severity of the crime.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you were arrested or charged with a crime, but believe that extenuating circumstances are present, you should talk to an attorney about your case. An experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to explain the law, and how to best present your extenuating circumstances so that you achieve the best possible outcome in your case.

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