What are Aggravating and Mitigating Factors

The court system is not only responsible for adjudicating guilt in a criminal trial, but also for determining sentences. Sentencing is a complex process through which the court seeks a fair and legal punishment after a defendant has been convicted of a crime.

In most jurisdictions in the United States, sentencing ranges, which implement a mandatory minimum and maximum sentence, are observed. Sentencing ranges were adopted in an attempt to correct unfair sentencing disparities between people convicted of similar crimes, and have since received a mixed reception amongst legal professionals and the American public. Regardless of the inherent correctness of sentencing guidelines, judges must follow these statutory provisions when determining sentences.

But how do judges decide where within a sentencing range to sentence a defendant? They consider a variety of factors, typically referred to as mitigating and aggravating factors, which can enhance or reduce a defendant’s sentence.

What are aggravating factors?What are Aggravating and Mitigating Factors

Aggravating factors are circumstances related to an offense or defendant that will then raise the severity of sentencing. Some aggravating factors will be written into the statute of the offense, such as punishment for consecutive DUIs in Tennessee and Georgia. In this case, recidivism (the tendency of a defendant to engage in repeated criminal behavior) is the aggravating factor. The impact is that the sentence becomes more severe as the amount of DUIs a defendant has been convicted of increases.

Other aggravating factors are applicable based on a jurisdiction’s statutes on sentencing. Certain circumstances of the offense are commonly considered aggravating factors. For example, the age of the victim, whether the defendant took a leadership role in the offense, and the amount of harm done by the offense are all considered. Circumstances about the defendant themself are also taken into account. In particular, a defendant’s sentence could be enhanced if the defendant has a previous criminal record. The defendant’s actions at trial such as refusing to take responsibility for the crime or obstructing justice can also factor into a judge’s decision to enhance the defendant’s sentence.

Courts will consider evidence brought forth during the trial and the sentencing hearing in order to determine which aggravating factors must be applied. Often, judges rely heavily on presentence reports prepared by the probation office to identify sentencing factors. Additionally, prosecutors may decide to submit a sentencing memorandum to the court in advance of the sentencing hearing, arguing for a certain sentence based on the aggravating factors present.

What are mitigating factors?

Mitigating factors are essentially the opposite of aggravating factors. These circumstances surrounding an offense or defendant impact the resolution of a criminal offense by lessening the severity of punishment.

Certain elements of the crime may actually be considered mitigating factors. If the defendant was a victim of abuse or sex trafficking, for example, and lashed out against their abuser or committed crimes to escape the abuse, the court should consider that. A defendant’s sentence could also be mitigated if the defendant’s role in the offense was minor, or if the offense was non-violent in nature.

The defendant’s personal circumstances and behavior in court can also help mitigate their sentence. Acceptance of responsibility is an important mitigating factor that defendants can demonstrate to the court. A demonstrated capacity to reform, lack of a criminal record, and more may further urge the court towards leniency.

Mitigating factors are applied in compliance with the sentencing jurisdiction’s statutes and rules on sentencing. Therefore, it is crucial that you hire a criminal defense attorney who is well-versed in the local sentencing laws and can emphasize all of the mitigating factors that apply in your case.

How Do I Bring Mitigating Factors to the Court’s Attention?

Just as is the case for aggravating factors, courts determine which mitigating factors to apply based on the information brought forth during the trial and sentencing hearing. For example, colleagues, community members, and family of the defendant may decide to submit character letters to the judge demonstrating the defendant’s good qualities and requesting leniency. Presentence reports prepared by parole officers can also reflect a defendant’s position in society and merits.

Defendants also have the opportunity to speak on their own behalf. Through their attorneys, defendants may submit a sentencing memorandum requesting a lighter sentencing based on the mitigating factors at play. In addition, defendants have a right to allocution. This is a defendant’s opportunity to personally address the court prior to sentencing. Most defendants will offer their apologies and explain their circumstances, such as having minor children who would suffer if their parent was incarcerated, during their allocution. These personal statements can make a significant difference in a defendant’s sentence.

Best & Brock Will Stand By Your Side

When criminal charges have been brought against you, you need a criminal defense attorney that will stand with you throughout the entire legal process. From pre-trial investigations, to jury or bench trials, all the way through sentencing hearings, Best & Brock are adept at every stage in the legal process. To schedule a FREE consultation with an attorney who will fight your charges from start to finish, reach out to Best & Brock by calling (423) 829-1055 or by filling out our online contact form.