The term “mitigation specialist” can refer to many different careers. There are specialists who work in mitigation of environmental issues like wildfire prevention and pollution, for instance. Most commonly, though, the term refers to people who advocate for less severe penalties in court cases. Additionally, while probation officers and other professionals complete pre-sentencing reports that carry elements of sentence recommendation for all crimes, the mitigation worker is primarily utilized in capital murder cases.
The general term “mitigation” means to reduce the “severity, seriousness or painfulness of something.” Applied to wildfire mitigation, that can mean eliminating excess foliage and dead wood or identifying places where embers might accumulate. Specialists in the legal application of the word, however, work to present factors in a criminal’s life that may have affected his actions. Aggravating factors are those which emerge on the side of the prosecution, and mitigating factors weigh on the side of the defense.
Before 1976, North Carolina law required that for severe crimes there could be no other penalty than death. In that year there was a legal challenge that resulted in a change that allowed judges and juries to consider lesser penalties. The American Bar Association has taken the lead in establishing a protocol and standards for mitigation investigation. In addition, there was a four-year moratorium on the death penalty in the US until 1976, when it was reinstated but with qualifications. Mitigating evidence had to be presented to the jury before sentencing. That information usually resembled a biography more than an investigation, according to an article in The New Yorker. Still, during that time people became specialists in investigating mitigating circumstances and in creating reports for the defense counsels. Today, there is an entire profession built around the specialty. There is even an accrediting organization, The National Alliance of Sentencing Advocates and Mitigation Specialists.
What Specialists Do
A report from the National Organization of Forensic Social Work (NOFSW) notes the irony that law requires attorneys and judges to hold advanced degrees and certifications, but that juries which decide the penalties in capital cases have no legal training. The organization advocates for the presentation of all relevant information before a sentence is passed. A pre-sentencing investigation is a normal procedure for all crimes, even misdemeanors, and is commonly performed by probation officers. The reports cover all aspects of the defendant’s life, including any history of child abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues and even physical things like tattoos. The specialist working to mediate a capital sentence would also interview the defendant’s family and friends to uncover pertinent information that could sway a jury toward leniency.
Preparing for the Profession
People in this profession generally have at least a bachelor’s degree in a field like sociology, social work or criminal justice. In addition, there may be courses in psychology and in law that would be helpful. The NOFSW provides trainings and workshops to keep its members well-informed. Most sources, though, cite work experience as the determinant factor in getting a position in this field. The specialist must an investigator who knows not only what information is important, but where to find it. He or she must have communication skills that enable the person to conduct interviews and write the required reports. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the median salary for arbitrators is $59,770.
This is a relatively new profession. The TV series “Bull” portrays a “trial scientist” who helps lawyers understand how to present information to jurors. Perhaps the person on his fictitious staff, working to discover the background for the crimes and the criminals, might well be called a mitigation specialist.