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 Diminished Capacity 

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Michael Santos

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Learning about diminished capacity may help a person who has been charged with a crime. Learn how the concept of diminished capacity can influence federal sentencing guidelines and a sentencing hearing.

Leniency at Sentencing

More than 90% of the people charged with federal crimes face a sentencing hearing. Federal judges will rely upon the U.S. Federal Sentencing Guidelines. I offered a brief history on sentencing guidelines in an earlier article I wrote about Aberrant Behavior. By reading about that history, visitors of Prison Professors can learn how and why judges rely upon the U.S. Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

Judges will consider various factors at sentencing. Learn how to build a case that may lead to a lower sentence. One strategy may include the rule of “diminished capacity” in federal sentencing.

What is diminished capacity?

As a legal term, diminished capacity implies that the individual didn’t know he was committing an offense. The person may plead guilty to committing a crime. But if the person didn’t know that he was committing a crime, the judge may be more inclined to have mercy when imposing the sentence.

According to the theory of diminished capacity, a person who knowingly commits a crime, and knowingly makes victims of other people, deserves a severe sentence. A person that commits a crime, but doesn’t know that he is committing a crime, may be worthy of mercy.

From a common sense perspective, it seems reasonable that a judge would impose a lighter sentence on some people. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has made several rules that allow judges to consider mitigating factors at sentencing. Judges can consider all types of mitigating factors, including:

  • Poverty
  • Racial discrimination and humiliation,
  • Drug abuse,
  • Addiction,
  • Dysfunctional family background
  • Lack of Guidance as a Youth,
  • And other influences.

Prosecutors will likely oppose requests for mercy. That’s their job. In the past, we’ve had several people that, while serving as Attorney General, issued policies that directed all prosecutors to charge defendants as severely as possible. For example, under President Trump, the Attorney General Sessions has a policy that required prosecutors to object to any arguments that could lead to a downward departure.

Still, Title 18 USC § 3555(a) requires judges to consider all types of personal factors. The guidelines provide a start. It’s up to the prosecutor to argue for a stiff sentence, and for the defense attorney to argue for a lenient sentence.

  • What steps should a person take to show that he is worthy of a lower sentence?

In some cases, that person may want to write a comprehensive story. The story should begin with a clear understanding of diminished capacity. In many cases, a person will plead guilty. Yet if he can show influences that led him into crime, he may help his attorney advance an argument for diminished capacity.

The United States Sentencing Guidelines offer insight. They state that a federal court may depart downward from the minimum sentence on the basis of diminished capacity. This rule applies for any nonviolent offense. Don’t take my word for it. At, we always advise people to do their own research. Check out the following citation:

Guideline permits a court to depart downward if the defendant “committed a nonviolent offense while suffering from significantly reduced mental capacity not resulting from voluntary use of drugs or other intoxicants.”

United States Sentencing Guidelines § 5K2.13

The United States Sentencing Guidelines allows for downward departures for mitigating factors. One of those factors may include an “extraordinary mental condition.” Defendants can build a case that may rely upon § 5K2.0 of the guidelines. Under that section, a person can present the diminished capacity defense for other types of crimes, even for violent crimes.

The defense attorney will argue legal matters. But a person who is charged has a duty.

  • Has he done everything within his power to help the defense attorney understand why he committed the offense?
  • What type of background did he have?
  • What experiences did he have in school?
  • What influences led to his career?
  • How did he perceive his role in the community?
  • What people influenced him to make decisions along the way?

A defense attorney will not know all the details of a person’s life. The person must invest time and energy to explain.

Our team at Prison Professors does not imply that a judge arguing for diminished capacity in Federal Sentencing will spare a person prison time. We are saying that a person should learn.

If prosecutors charge a person with a federal crime, then it makes sense to learn about every strategy possible. If a person expects a judge to have mercy at sentencing, then the person should invest the time and energy to help the judge. Let the judge know every influence that led to his criminal behavior. Influences may not excuse the crime. But influences may help explain the crime. They may advance an argument for diminished capacity in Federal Sentencing.

At Prison Professors, we offer all types of free content for people. We want people to understand prosecution. We want them to understand the sentencing process. We want them to understand how they can prepare for a better outcome. Learn about the U.S. Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Learn about the Presentence Investigation Report. Learn about the prison system. Learn strategies to grow through a prison experience. Learn steps that lead toward a pathway of success.

If people want to pursue this path of using diminished capacity in federal sentencing, we encourage them to read all of the articles and posts on Subscribe to our channel on YouTube so you can receive notifications when we publish new content. It’s free. We strive to help people receive the best possible outcome.

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