What are aggravating factors in criminal cases?

Written by katherine graham
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What are aggravating factors in criminal cases?
Aggravating factors lead to increased criminal sentences. (revolver image by AGphotographer from Fotolia.com)

In the field of criminal law, the prosecution can use aggravating factors to increase the sentence imposed on a defendant if he is found guilty of a crime. Aggravating factors can vary by the state or district where the court is located, but some factors are common regardless of location.

Prior Convictions

Most courts consider prior convictions an aggravating factor, especially if the convictions were for dangerous or lethal crimes. For example, the California Penal Code allows a defendant convicted of murder to be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole if she was previously convicted of murder. Prior convictions also can be used as aggravating factors to enhance a criminal sentence for crimes other than murder.


The aggravating factor of cruelty is known by many names, including depravity, cruelty, heinousness, malice and brutality. Essentially, this factor means a court can find that the defendant should be punished more harshly if he acted in a way that showed a particular disregard for human life.

Use of a Deadly Weapon

Many states consider the use of a deadly weapon during the commission of a crime to be an aggravating factor. The state of Pennsylvania refers to this factor as the Deadly Weapon Enhancement, and the use of a weapon during the commission of a crime in that state enhances the gravity of the offence and leads to longer criminal sentences.

Avoidance of Lawful Arrest

If a defendant in a criminal case committed the crime to avoid lawful arrest, that commission can be considered an aggravating factor. For example, the state of Connecticut allows enhancement of criminal sentences if the crime was committed to avoid arrest, prevent detection of a crime or as retaliation against a state official for performing her official duties.

Causing Injury to a Pregnant Woman

The aggravating factor of causing injury to a pregnant woman is fairly new. In 2003, the state of Colorado added deliberately killing a pregnant woman when the defendant knew the victim was pregnant to its list of aggravating factors.

Hate Crime

Another fairly modern criminal aggravating factor is the commission of a crime based on the victim's race, religion, national origin, ethnicity or disability. Collectively, these crimes are referred to as hate crimes, and many states impose additional penalties for these crimes. For example, Alabama allows courts to impose additional penalties on criminal defendants who commit crimes that are motivated by hate for a particular religion, ethnicity or other protected group.

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