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(circumstances mitigating responsibility), in criminal law, circumstances attending the commission of a crime and indicating that a particular criminal act or the criminal himself is less socially dangerous than would be the case if such circumstances had not existed.
A distinction is made between mitigating circumstances that are an inseparable element of a crime and those that are not an element of a specific crime. Examples of the former are seen in the instance of a murder that takes place when the bounds of necessary defense are exceeded or in that of a premeditated murder that is committed in a state of severe mental agitation. Examples of the latter, listed in the Criminal Code of the RSFSR (art. 38), include prevention by the guilty person of harmful consequences of the crime committed and commission of the crime under the influence of a threat or compulsion.
The types of mitigating circumstances listed in the law are only intended to be examples. The court may in each specific instance recognize as mitigating circumstances other circumstances revealed during proceedings, such as irreproachable conduct of the accused in the past, military or work honors, or serious illness.
If the criminal law sanctions alternatives, then the presence of mitigating circumstances may serve as grounds for assigning the guilty person a milder punishment from among those indicated by the law, such as correctional labor instead of deprivation of freedom, or for applying a punishment that is shorter in duration. The guilty person may even be assigned a different, milder punishment than that provided by law or assigned a punishment below the statutory minimum set as the approved norm in the criminal law.
The presence of mitigating circumstances may in some cases serve as grounds for releasing the guilty person from criminal responsibility, the case then being transferred to a comrades’ court or the guilty person released on surety.