When a person commits a crime, there may be reasons or factors that justify his actions to some degree or completely. These factors are known as extenuating circumstances and may apply to major or minor crimes. Examples of extenuating circumstances include abuse, mental illness, and age.
In cases where violent crimes are committed, plaintiffs often assert that violence was necessary due to the need for self-defense. When a plaintiff claims self-defense, he basically argues that his actions were a response either to actual violence or to the threat of violence. If it can be proved that the alleged victim initiated the confrontation, the charges against the plaintiff may be dropped or reduced.
Another of the extenuating circumstances that may be used in cases where there are violent crimes is abuse. For example, a woman may murder her husband and be found guilty. Instead of being executed or incarcerated, she may be ordered to seek mental health treatment. The reason for this is because it is widely believed that abuse has psychological effects that can prompt individuals to act in ways that they would not normally act.
To be prosecuted for many crimes, intent must be proved. In some cases, it can be successfully argued that a person's mental state does not allow him to be held accountable for his actions because he suffers from a psychiatric illness. Such arguments are likely to be most effective if the individual has a history of mental illness. In many cases, however, attempts to use this argument are unsuccessful because the court is not convinced that a person completely lacked the capacity to determine right and wrong.
Physical need arguments may be presented as extenuating circumstances. For example, a person may be speeding because she has someone in the car who is bleeding to death. A person may break into a house because she is stranded and faces the threat of freezing. Courts are often lenient in such cases if the claims can be verified and no additional and unnecessary crimes were committed.
Sometimes courts will consider age when determining a plaintiff's guilt. Young offenders may be deemed incapable of fully understanding the severity of their actions and may be treated with more compassion than an adult would receive under the same circumstances. A good example of such a situation is an accidental shooting that results from a prank. A court may rule that an adult should have known better than to play with a gun, but the court may find that a 6-year-old lacks the capacity to exercise the same discretion.