What Are Aggravating and Mitigating Circumstances in Federal Sentencing?
Most federal offenses are defined in statutes that identify the various crimes and impose punishments, usually listed as ranges up to a maximum. When a defendant is convicted, the judge will consider specific aggravating or mitigating factors to decide the sentence.
Mitigating factors are extenuating circumstances that could result in a reduced sentence, such as having no criminal record or playing a minor role in the crime.
Aggravating factors are circumstances that increase the defendant's culpability and could lead to an enhanced sentence, such as prior convictions and victim injuries.
While federal judges have a broad range of latitude in determining appropriate sentencing, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) maintains extensive guidelines for determining sentencing ranges for federal crimes.
That being said, judges can also consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances in determining the severity of a sentence. Simply put, aggravating factors can increase the severity of a punishment, while mitigating factors can reduce it.
Predictably, prosecutors often try to highlight aggravating factors to procure a more severe sentence when trying your case. For example, repeat offenses will usually carry harsher penalties. Meanwhile, a skilled federal criminal defense attorney will typically emphasize mitigating factors when arguing your case to seek more leniency in sentencing.
If you're accused of a federal crime, understanding aggravating and mitigating circumstances can help you know what to expect if and when you are convicted.
What Are Aggravating Circumstances?
Aggravating circumstances increase the severity or culpability of a criminal act.
Some generally recognized aggravating circumstances include the heinousness of the crime, lack of remorse, and prior conviction of another crime.
Other aggravating factors might relate to how the crime was committed, including using a weapon or the seriousness of the victim's injuries. Crimes that are motivated by hate and bias could be punished more severely.
They might make your crime more serious in the eyes of the court and, therefore, call for more severe sentencing. For instance, in a bank robbery case, if the defendant used a weapon during the robbery and was the mastermind behind it, these factors could lead to a longer sentence.
Some specific examples of aggravating circumstances in federal sentencing include:
- Your Role in the Offense: If you played a significant role in the crime, such as being the leader or organizer, this is considered an aggravating factor. You may receive a more severe sentence than an accomplices involved.
- Use of a Deadly Weapon: Using a weapon during the commission of a crime typically increases the seriousness of your offense and, consequently, your sentence.
- Serious Injury or Death: If a person is injured or killed during your offense, this almost always counts as an aggravating factor when you are sentenced.
- Victim Vulnerability: If the victim was particularly vulnerable, for example, a child or an elderly person, this could weigh negatively against you when the judge pronounces a sentence.
- Prior Criminal Record: If you have a prior criminal record, this can weigh negatively against you when the judge considers sentencing.
- Harm to Multiple Victims: If the crime has negatively impacted multiple people, this can be seen as an aggravating factor. The more victims affected, the more serious the crime is perceived.
- Recruitment of Minors: You'll likely receive a harsher sentence if you recruit minors to participate in the crime. The court typically penalizes more severely those who exploit children for criminal purposes.
Mandatory Minimum Sentencing
We should mention that certain crimes and aggravating factors can trigger mandatory minimum sentences, removing the judge's ability to adjust a sentence downward. Many federal drug crimes carry mandatory minimums, such as child pornography, using explosives, in particular violent crimes.
What Are Mitigating Circumstances?
A mitigating factor is the opposite of an aggravating circumstance, as it provides reasons as to why punishment for a criminal act sought to be lessened. Defense attorneys often present evidence of mitigating circumstances that support lenient sentences, such as past abuse that led to criminal conduct.
Mitigating circumstances are factors that, while not excusing the crime, can provide some context that may reduce your sentence. Examples of mitigating circumstances include:
- Playing a Minor Role: If you played a minor or minimal role in the crime, this could prompt the judge to adjust your sentence downward.
- Cooperation with Authorities: Providing substantial assistance to the authorities in investigating or prosecuting others can also serve as a mitigating factor, reducing your sentence.
- First-Time Offender: Defendants with no prior criminal history tend to receive lighter sentences than repeat offenders.
- Mental or Physical Condition: This could be considered a mitigating factor if you suffered from a significant mental or physical condition during the offense. Examples include mental illness, intellectual disability, or severe physical health issues.
- Difficult Personal History: If you had a complicated personal history that could have contributed to your criminal behavior, this could merit lighter sentencing. This includes physical or sexual abuse, poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, etc.
- Culpability of the Victim: Not all mitigating circumstances involve the defendant. If the victim was partially culpable in leading to the crime (e.g., was a willing participant), this could be seen as a mitigating factor when sentencing you.
- Acting under Duress: If you acted under exceptional circumstances such as provocation, stress, or emotional strain when committing the crime, these circumstances may be considered when determining your sentence.
Balancing Aggravating and Mitigating Factors
The court will consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances in deciding on a sentence.
For example, a first-time offender who played a significant role in a particularly violent crime might still face a hefty sentence due to the seriousness of the offense despite having no prior convictions.
When courts assess criminal cases, they have to consider multiple factors discussed above to help them decide the appropriate punishment for an offender.
Understanding how to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors is crucial in these decisions. Mitigating factors, as noted, do not just help reduce punishments but often give courts insight into the suspect's extenuating circumstances.
Judges must know how to utilize this evidence when determining outcomes for criminal judgments to ensure justice is served and sentencing reflects the appropriate considerations. Contact our law firm for a case review and to discuss legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California.
- What Federal Crimes Qualify for Capital Punishment?
- Strategic Approaches for Staying Out of Federal Prison
- Sentencing Hearing
- Sentencing Memorandum
- Aggravating and Mitigating Factors in Criminal Sentencing Law
- Aggravating and Mitigating Role Adjustments
- Cunningham v. California, 549 U.S. 270 (2007)
- Aggravating Circumstances