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In Law, what is Leniency?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Leniency is the practice or tendency for forgiveness, mercifulness, or compassion when issuing a punishment for a crime after conviction. It does not affect the process of investigation, arrest, or trial but only comes into play once someone has been convicted of a crime and the punishment is being decided. In this respect, leniency is the act of imposing or allowing a reduced sentence for a person that inflicts a less harsh punishment on the individual. Some defendants will openly seek such leniency and throw themselves upon the “mercy of the court” in hopes of forgiveness, though this may sometimes work against them.

Many cultures and religions view mercy and forgiveness, at least for those who truly seek it, to be a virtue. For some, demonstrating leniency can be similarly viewed as a highly commendable or even moral act. Among other people, however, such lightheartedness can be considered a weakness and displays of leniency toward those who violate the rules of society may be seen as affronts to social norms. For these reasons, a judge deciding on punishment for an offender must consider many aspects of a crime before choosing to be especially strict or lenient.

A judge who often demonstrates leniency in sentencing certain types of convicted defendants will likely find respect, condemnation, or both from the general public. This has a great deal to do with both the general attitude of citizens in a specific area, as well as the types of crimes that a judge is viewed as being lenient upon. Some communities will look to their judges to show leniency against certain types of minor crimes. Similarly, crimes committed by young people may be viewed as less offensive, and owing more to the mischievous nature of immaturity and adolescence than any pernicious intent. Extreme crimes committed by young people, however, are often called to be met with severe punishment to serve as an example to other wayward youths who may find themselves in situations where similarly malicious acts become viable.

There are concerns among some researchers, legal professionals, and behavioral psychologists that perpetual leniency shown toward a certain individual, group, or type of crime may create in others a sense of permissiveness toward the person or act. This can be seen often in public opinion regarding celebrities and criminal or socially immoral behavior, such as drunk driving or indecent conduct. Some celebrities are viewed as having the ability to buy their way out of any offense, and this sort of cynicism not only infects others, but can also give celebrities a jaded sense of acceptable behavior. This sort of pattern of acceptance can have the inverse effect of causing intolerance to be shown to such individuals, as a backlash of popular opinion turns against them.

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