A mitigating circumstance is a factor that lessens the severity of an act or the actor’s culpability for the action. Mitigating circumstances can be found in both criminal and civil cases and may be used to justify a reduction in the severity of the punishment or damages. Mitigating circumstances include, but are not limited to, the defendant's age, extreme mental or emotional state at the time the crime was committed, developmental disability, and lack of a prior criminal record.
Both a judge and a jury can consider mitigating circumstances and this power cannot be limited by statute, with the possible exception of certain death penalty cases, based on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Lockett v. Ohio (1978). Recognition of particular mitigating circumstances varies by jurisdiction and the nature of the action at issue in the case.
For example, 18 US Code §3592 codifies the federal government’s suggested mitigating factors for the death penalty – impaired capacity, duress, minor participation, equally culpable defendants, no prior criminal record, disturbance, victim’s consent. The code also highlights that other factors may still be considered.
The opposite of a mitigating factor is an aggravating factor, which increases the severity of the action or the actor’s culpability for the action.
See, e.g. Magwood v. Patterson, 130 S.Ct. 2788 (2010).
[Last updated in July of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]