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The Role of Mitigating Circumstances in a Criminal Case

The punishments a court can impose upon a conviction are severe. Take assault with a firearm, for example. A court can sentence the alleged offender to 2, 3, or 4 years in prison. Although these terms of imprisonment are possible, it’s also possible to seek lesser penalties. A judge will weigh mitigating circumstances the defense presents to determine whether to render a sentence on the lower end of the range. At the same time, they will also consider aggravating circumstances the prosecutor offers to justify imposing a prison term on the higher end of the range.

If you have been charged with a crime in Santa Rosa, please reach out to the Law Offices of Evan E. Zelig, P.C. at (707) 418-5352 or contact us online to discuss your case.

The Purpose of Sentencing

Criminal penalties are imposed upon those convicted of crimes to ensure public safety and rehabilitate the offender. The sentence a judge renders should be proportionate to the severity of the offense, where similar circumstances result in similar penalties. After all, it wouldn’t be fair for someone convicted of assault to receive the same punishments as someone convicted of murder.

That said, although the facts of one case might be comparable to those of another, no two matters are exactly alike. Certain details or pieces of information concerning the crime or the defendant may vary between cases.

Therefore, when a judge is considering the sentence to impose following a conviction, they will look not only at the terms of incarceration allowed by the statute violated but also at mitigating circumstances. Mitigating circumstances are factors that decrease the severity of the crime or the defendant’s culpability. At the same time, the judge will consider aggravating circumstances that make the crime worse. If the mitigating circumstances outweigh the aggravating ones, the judge may impose a lesser sentence.

Circumstances in Mitigation

As mentioned previously, mitigating circumstances decrease the severity of the offense. They might put the defendant in a more favorable light, demonstrating that their conduct was not typical. Mitigating factors can also show that the defendant’s involvement in the incident was not substantial.

Examples of mitigating circumstances related to the defendant include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • No criminal history
  • Mental condition reduced culpability
  • A juvenile at the time of the offense
  • Under 26 years of age at the time of the offense
  • Acknowledged wrongdoing early in the case
  • Made restitution to the victim
  • Satisfactorily performed a prior term of probation or parole

Below are some mitigating factors that may be raised:

  • The defendant had a minor role in the offense
  • The victim initiated or provoked the incident
  • The defendant acted under unusual circumstances unlikely to recur
  • The defendant was induced to engage in the conduct
  • The defendant tried to avoid harm to others or property
  • The defendant believed they had a right to property
  • The defendant’s motivation was to get necessities for themselves or others
  • The victim was a family or household member who repeatedly subjected the defendant to physical, sexual, or psychological abuse

Circumstances in Aggravation

While the defendant can present mitigating factors to lessen the offense's severity, the prosecutor can also present aggravating factors to pursue maximum sentences. According to California laws, when a crime has three possible terms of imprisonment, the judge cannot impose the upper term unless aggravating circumstances justify doing so.

As with mitigating factors, aggravating factors concern the defendant and the offense.

Circumstances in aggravation relating to the defendant include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • They are a serious danger to society
  • They’ve had several and increasing previous convictions
  • They previously served time in jail or prison
  • They had an unsatisfactory performance on prior probation or parole

The following are aggravating circumstances related to the crime:

  • The offense resulted in great bodily harm
  • The defendant had or used a weapon
  • The victim was a vulnerable person
  • The defendant coerced others to participate in the offense
  • The crime was committed with planning and sophistication
  • The defendant took advantage of a position of trust

Turn to an Attorney for Assistance

Seeing the possible sentences that can be imposed upon a conviction can be frightening. However, the terms of incarceration are not a guarantee. You can fight the allegations to seek a favorable outcome, such as dropped charges or an acquittal. In cases where a conviction results, you can present mitigating factors to pursue leniency in sentencing. A criminal defense lawyer can help build your arguments.

At the Law Offices of Evan E. Zelig, P.C., we explore available legal options for our clients in Santa Rosa. To speak with us about your case, please contact us at (707) 418-5352.