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Sentence Reduction Using Mitigating Factors

Each state is responsible for creating its own criminal laws, including sentencing laws. California’s criminal sentencing laws are among the most complex in the country due to the many enhancements as well as the fact that recent criminal justice reforms have drastically changed certain areas of the law. However, one thing that has remained constant over the past several decades is the significant weight assigned to mitigation.

What Is Mitigation?

In the criminal sentencing context, mitigation refers to the presentation of circumstances or evidence by the defense to argue for a reduced sentence. Mitigation is intended to humanize a defendant and, while not offering an excuse, perhaps provide some context for the defendant’s actions. Mitigating factors can include the defendant's lack of prior criminal history, mental health issues, substance abuse issues, remorse shown for the crime, or any personal hardships that may have influenced their behavior. Mitigation can also include the defendant’s achievements that may be unrelated to the crime; for example, a lengthy career as a public servant or multiple tours of active duty in the armed forces would carry significant weight in front of most jurists.

How the Judiciary Decides Sentencing in a Criminal Case

In California, criminal sentences are determined based on a combination of legal rules, judicial discretion, and guidelines set forth by the California Rules of Court.

Legal Rules

Each crime in California is defined by statute, which often includes a range of possible sentences or otherwise provides the sentencing judge some clarification on what an appropriate sentence may be. For example, many statutes specify three possible sentences that can be imposed for an offense, which can be influenced by factors such as the severity of the crime, the gradation of the offense, and any aggravating or mitigating circumstances.

For example, robbery of the first degree generally carries a possible term of imprisonment of three, four, or six years. However, if the defendant committed the offense with another person and the crime occurred within an occupied structure, the offense carries a term of three, six-, or nine-years imprisonment.

Assuming that the defendant was working alone, the judge would then decide which term would apply. To do this, the judge would consider the circumstances of the offense as well as the defendant’s criminal history.

Judges also can rely heavily on mitigating factors, which are described in greater detail below.

Sentencing Enhancements

California law includes numerous sentencing enhancements that can increase the length of a sentence under certain circumstances. For instance, if a defendant used a firearm during the commission of a crime, an additional term could be added to the base sentence. Additionally, California’s “Three Strikes” law requires judges to impose significantly longer prison sentences for certain repeat offenders who have been convicted of multiple serious or violent felonies.

Sentencing Hearing

After a defendant is convicted, the court will hold a sentencing hearing, usually within a few months of the verdict. During this hearing, the prosecution and defense both present evidence and arguments regarding what they believe to be the appropriate sentence. This may include information about the defendant’s background, the circumstances of the crime, and the impact on the victims.

Judges have significant discretion to determine the appropriate sentence. They consider various factors, including the defendant’s criminal history, the nature and circumstances of the offense, and any aggravating or mitigating factors. For example, if the defendant played a minor role in the crime or has shown genuine remorse, the judge might consider a lighter sentence.

What Are Considered "Mitigating Factors”?

California law does not provide a specific list of mitigating factors that judges can consider during a sentencing hearing. Instead, judges are free to consider the mitigating impact of anything presented by the defense. Generally, mitigation is about giving the judge a window into your life, what you’ve been through, what held you back, and what achievements you’ve managed to accomplish.

Examples of Mitigating Factors

While there isn’t an official list of mitigating factors, some of the most common mitigation include the following:

Lack of Prior Criminal Record: The fewer convictions you have on your record, the more successful your California criminal defense attorney may be in arguing for a reduced sentence. Minor Role in the Crime: If you played a relatively minor or passive role in the offense compared to others involved, it may open the door for your lawyer to argue in favor of a less severe sentence.

Mental or Physical Condition: If you were suffering from a significant mental or physical condition at the time of the offense, such as substance abuse disorder, the court may find that your condition substantially reduced your culpability.

Age: If you were particularly young at the time of the offense, courts are required to consider the impact that your youth had on the commission of the crime.

Remorse: If you are able to show genuine remorse for the crime, acknowledging your wrongdoing and the harm it caused, an experienced Los Angeles criminal defense attorney may be successful in convincing the judge to decrease your sentence.

Victim Provocation or Imperfect Self-Defense: If you argued self-defense at trial, but the judge or jury rejected the defense, you may still be able to realize some mitigating effect at sentencing.

Cooperation with Authorities: If you cooperated with law enforcement or the prosecution, the judge may consider your cooperation when fashioning your sentence.

Difficult Personal Circumstances: If you experienced particularly difficult circumstances, such as an abusive childhood or being the victim of domestic violence, and your Los Angeles criminal defense attorney can establish that your circumstances contributed to your behavior, it can serve as strong mitigation.

Rehabilitative Efforts: If you have made efforts toward rehabilitation, such as undergoing substance abuse counseling or obtaining educational or vocational training, it will enable your lawyer to argue for a mitigated sentence.

At the end of the day, mitigation is about humanizing you in the eyes of the judge. Thus, anything that provides the judge with insight into what you’ve been through or the positive things you’ve done in your life can have a tremendous impact at sentencing.

The Importance of Developing Mitigating Facts and How a Successful Sentencing Attorney Can Help Develop Mitigating Factors

Mitigation isn’t just about presenting the judge with a list of bad things that have happened to you; it’s really about telling your story. The goal of presenting mitigation is to give the judge useful insight into your life. In some cases, mitigation will provide some context for a defendant’s actions. In other cases, the best mitigation takes the form of a compelling narrative about the good a defendant can do with their lives if they are not incarcerated.

Mitigating is intensely personal and very much depends on the specifics of your life. This is why it is imperative to work with an experienced Los Angeles sentencing lawyer before your sentencing hearing. A sentencing lawyer understands how to gather and present mitigating factors in the most compelling way possible.

At Power Trial Lawyers, our Southern California criminal defense attorneys diligently work to create thoughtful narratives that explain the challenges our clients faced and how this impacted their understanding of the world around them. We may also discuss how, despite our client’s efforts, they were unable to break free from their perceived reality, which resulted in the development of false ideals. At the same time, we may emphasize the positive things our client accomplished, especially considering the challenging circumstances they faced.

Overall, our goal with mitigation is to give the judge a better understanding of our client because it’s much harder for a judge to send a person away for a lengthy prison sentence if the judge can empathize with them and understand where they came from.

Are You Interested in Discussing Mitigation with an Experienced Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer?

At Power Trial Lawyers, we have experience handling criminal trials and criminal defense cases through sentencing hearings and resentencing hearings. We understand how to present mitigation in a way that is both moving and compelling. To learn more, give Power Trial Lawyers a call at 213-800-7664 or connect with us through our secure online contact form.

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