Extenuating circumstances are facts about a person or case which might alter the gravity of the offense in the eyes of the law. When information about extenuating circumstances is presented, it is usually done so with the goal of diminishing the punishment. In this case, the act is still believed to be a crime and is treated as such, but the sentence for the crime may be altered or reduced to reflect the fact that there were extenuating circumstances involved.
Sometimes known as mitigating factors, extenuating circumstances can include things like youth, mental illness, developmental delays, a dangerous and unstable home environment, social pressures such as religious persecution, and so forth. These facts are not presented to suggest that the crime was not terrible, but to show that the defendant may not have fully understood the ramifications of the crime. A seven year old who shoots someone, for example, is given a lighter sentence than an adult because the court recognizes that the child may not have fully understood the nature of his or her action.
These facts are usually presented to a judge before sentencing takes place, although in some nations, juries can also consider extenuating circumstances. The information is designed to prove diminished culpability, demonstrating that although the person is culpable or responsible for the crime, there is some question about precisely how responsible the offender really may be. This information can be conveyed in testimony, letters, and other forms of presentation which are designed to demonstrate the mitigating factors in the case.
Many nations allow judges to weigh this information when formulating a sentence. For some crimes, however, mandatory sentencing laws may be in effect, in which case the judge may not be able to reduce or alter the sentence. However, awareness of extenuating circumstances could influence where the offender is incarcerated, and could play a role in parole hearings later down the line.
People may use the term “extenuating circumstances” more generally outside the legal community when discussing situations impacted by events outside someone's control. For example, a student may ask for an extension on a paper with the argument that she or he was prevented from finishing by extenuating circumstances like the loss of a computer. Likewise, companies may not be held liable for late delivery of products and services if they can show that there were mitigating factors involved which they could not control.