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Mitigating circumstances: what are they?

It can be difficult at times to understand sentencing in our criminal justice system. One person convicted of a crime might receive a relatively light sentence while another, convicted of the very same crime, pays a much heavier price.

There can be many reasons for disparities in sentencing. Some people accused of crimes agree to cooperate with authorities in exchange for lesser punishments. In some cases, judges consider mitigating circumstances such as a defendant playing a minor role in the commission of the crime; a defendant having no prior criminal record; the defendant accepting responsibility for the crime and being remorseful, and so on.

A couple of those circumstances appear to have played roles in the recent sentencing of a Florida man convicted of a white-collar crime. He had filed a pair of fraudulent tax returns and received just over $300,000 in illicit refunds.

The Pompano Beach man was recently sentenced to spend one year and one day in federal prison.

Yet the man's friend, who was an organizer of the scheme, won't get out of prison until 2040, according to a Sun-Sentinel article.

Key differences in their cases include the fact that the man who received the lesser sentence turned himself over to IRS authorities, admitting to them his role. He did not wait to be arrested.

Of course, anyone who believes they are under investigation for tax fraud, banking fraud, insider trading or similar white-collar crimes should speak in detail beforehand with an experienced criminal defense attorney about possible consequences of such a course of action. An attorney can help them understand the potential benefits and drawbacks, so that the person can make an informed decision that is in their best interests.