How Do Mitigating Circumstances Affect Sentencing?

How Do Mitigating Circumstances Affect Sentencing? 

  1. 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 Is 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.  

In some cases, specific statutes address mitigating (or even aggravating) circumstances. For example, someone who burglarizes a home with a gun can be charged with a more serious crime than someone who commits a burglary without a weapon.

Additionally, it doesn’t matter if the person actually used the weapon. Per the statute, it’s enough of an aggravating factor just to possess the weapon at the time of the burglary.

Generally, the court can take into account any factor that is relevant to the case. For example, maybe the defendant purchased drugs, but they had recently become unemployed and were feeling depressed. If the court finds these facts relevant to the case, it has the authority to adjust the defendant’s sentence accordingly. 

Examples of Mitigating Circumstances  

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.

The defendant had a minor role in the crime – One possible mitigating circumstance is that the defendant wasn’t a main player in the crime. For example, someone who drives a getaway car in a bank robbery is likely to get a more lenient sentence than the person who held the bank teller at gunpoint and ran out with bags of money.

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.

For example, if someone is punched at a concern and reacts by smashing a glass beer bottle over the other person’s head, this could be a mitigating factor in a sentence. The person obviously overreacted, but they might not have acted at all if not for the first person punching them.

Emotional or financial stress – The court may also consider a defendant’s sudden emotional or financial stress that might have prompted them to act out in an uncharacteristic way. For example, a person who steals groceries because they’ve been out of work for months is obviously dealing with financial stress.

In some cases, crimes committed due to financial stress are actually a separate defense called “necessity.” In these cases, the court may hand down an even lighter sentence in recognition of the defendant’s clear need to access something like food. 

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.

For example, a burglar who breaks into a home they mistakenly think is empty might startle the homeowner, causing them to fall. If the burglar helps the person to their feet before running away, this could be a mitigating circumstance.

Alcohol and substance abuse – A defendant’s addiction may be considered a mitigating circumstance in some cases, 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. For example, the court may hand down a lighter sentence to someone convicted of solicitation if the person suffered childhood sexual abuse.

Contact a Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer About Your Case

Mitigating circumstances can play an important role in criminal sentencing. This is why it’s important to work with a knowledgeable Texas criminal defense lawyer. Depending on the unique facts in your case, you may be able to present a defense that leads to a lighter sentence or even a dismissal of the charges against you.

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Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyer John Helms


Prior results cannot and do not guarantee or predict a similar outcome with respect to any future case.