Youthful offenders: What every parent should know

Sherri Jefferson is an advocate, author, and an attorney. Transforming the lives of children is her passion. Transferring knowledge is her profession.

Every day across America, children face charges for youthful offenses that impact their future. Every day across this state, children face the challenges of being an adult at 17 years old for purposes of criminal prosecution.
Most of these offenses are non-violent charges of disrupting a public school, simple battery, possession of marijuana less than an ounce, or possession of prescription drugs. In most of these incidents, the youth possesses pills prescribed by their own healthcare providers.
A growing number of colleges and universities across America are demanding information about arrests and convictions associated with every applicant. Subsequently, many of these children are unable to pursue higher education. Many employers still conduct background checks. The results create barriers for youthful offenders to attain employment opportunities.
The following information may assist families to help their children make informed decisions about their future. Knowledge is power, and how one uses knowledge can be life-changing.
The facts surrounding each person or case is uniquely different. The justice system can be very difficult to navigate even for a novice in the legal profession. In Georgia, there are 159 counties. Every county offers unique programs and services to First Time Offenders. Each county governs their own programs and services.
Although the goals may be the same, the journey or steps required for First Time Offenders are different. First, most people use the term “First Time Offender” interchangeably.
In Georgia, there exists four different programs and services offered to persons facing their first offense or brush with the justice system. From juvenile to municipal and from state court to superior court, every court offers a different program for their first time offenders.
The common goal is to prevent first time offenders from experiencing life challenges due to misjudgments or poor decisions regarding criminal behavior. More states are offering programs to help curtail these obstacles and the State of Georgia is no exception.

The Plea
The decision for youth to plea or have a jury trial is based upon the benefits of avoiding a trial and the consequences associated with guilt. However, in the long run, a plea generally has the same collateral consequences because it can still lead to a conviction. Nevertheless, youth must avoid arrest and convictions.
When impossible, then a plea may prevent long-term imprisonment. During court a person may plea Guilty, Not Guilty, or NOLO (Nolo Contendere, which means no contest). A no contest plea basically means that the person does not deny or admit to guilt, but will acknowledge the charge and agree to the terms and conditions of the sentence. The judge only accepts no contest pleas. Generally, these pleas are not part of plea bargaining.

Pretrial Diversion
Ideally, pretrial diversion is a program offered under Georgia law through prosecutors to first-time offenders facing minor charges. Generally speaking, to be eligible for the program, the youthful offender will agree to adhere to a certain standard of behavior that includes not reoffending.
The child will also agree to waive certain legal rights, which may be a right to a speedy trial, grand jury indictment and may be subject to complete classes for drug, alcohol, and anger management. Further, you may be subject to drug screening.
Upon successful completion of the pretrial diversion program, the charges/case will be dismissed. This program does not offer a second chance, it offers a fair chance at avoiding conviction, sentencing and a record. Under Georgia law, records will be restricted. The pretrial diversion program requires fees and they vary from county to county.

First Offender Sentence
Another option available to avoid the collateral consequences of conviction, sentencing and a record, is the “First Offender Sentence (First Offender Treatment).” This legal option requires the youthful offender to plead guilty to an offense or in some cases, he may be found guilty of committing an offense by a bench trial or jury.
Generally speaking, this legal option may only be used once in a person’s lifetime. However, there may be circumstances, where the youthful offender may reoffend later in life and the option may be available at that time.
This legal option has restrictions. Under Georgia law, several offenses like DUI , some violent acts, and sexual offenses are not eligible for first offender treatment.
Also, first offenders treatment is at the sole discretion of the judge, whereas pretrial diversion is at the sole discretion of the prosecutor.
Typically, First Offender sentence avoids incarceration. There are some instances where incarceration in a probation detention center, jail, or prison is is part of the sentence. First Offender sentences will include fines, restitution, fees, and participation in community based programs for drug and alcohol awareness, anger management and in certain cases, a shoplifting class. Persons under the First Offender sentences will be monitored during a probationary period.
Upon successful completion of the program, the judge removes the conviction. The record of the offender will not appear in the background check as a conviction. The offender’s arrest record is restricted by the court. If the sentence is not completed, then the person is subject to be sentenced to the maximum time allowed under the law for each offense for which he/she is guilty.

Conditional Discharge
Georgia has another unique law for first time offenders. The Georgia Conditional Discharge law authorizes judges and prosecutors to discharge and dismiss an offenders’ “first” drug conviction. This law only applies to drug offenses or a person accused of engaging in acts because of drug use. For example, if a person damages property due to an addiction or drug use, that offense may qualify for the conditional discharge.
A possible pitfall of the Conditional Discharge is the probation program, which can last up to five years. While under a Conditional Discharge, you are actually under a probated court sentence.
Upon successful completion of the requirements, the Court will dismiss the case/charges against you as though you were never convicted of an offense. If you do not successfully complete the program, then you would be back to square one and will be subject to plea or a trial on the triable charges.

Drug Court
Finally, several counties throughout Georgia offers drug courts. Generally speaking, the Drug Court program is felony drug-related crimes that include drugs and drugs involving damages to property.
Unlike the other programs, a council or team manages Drug Courts with a diverse background in the field of substance abuse. The program is selective about participants. Each county offers a different program, but the duration is generally a minimum of 24 months. This alternative sentence offers intervention or rehabilitation programs to program participants under very, very close supervision.
Most programs operate on a graduated system, which includes levels or phrases. Each level or phrase offers a combination of therapy and counseling and drug testing. All participants are still required to attend meetings and court appearances.
This program requires the offender to agree to waive constitutional rights to searches and seizures, seek permission from program personnel to use even prescribed medication, and also requires waiver of medical and other confidential treatment records for up to five years after completion of the program.
This program also has several sanctions, which authorizes jail time for violations of the terms and conditions of the program.
Upon successful completion of the program, then the court dismisses the charges. Failure to complete the program will result in loss of credit for the time spent in the program. The participants will be required to pursue the normal track of their case, which includes a plea. The participants are required to waive their right to a trial by jury.

Records Restriction (Expungement)
Georgia no longer offers “expungement” of records. Georgia now has “Records Restriction.” Restriction is a legal tool is offered at the sole discretion of the prosecutors in this state. In Georgia, you may be eligible for records restriction after five years from the final disposition of your case.
Most arrests and convictions are eligible, but most industries have access to criminal histories (education/teaching, criminal justice/police, transportation/airlines, medical/nursing, and most government jobs).
Respectfully, the changes to Georgia’s expungement law provide little relief to benefit to most people. The collateral consequences of an arrest or conviction will adversely impact their lives.
Unless an arrest or conviction is deleted from background histories like bad credit is deleted from credit reports, youth will never be able to benefit from a crime-free life because of the inability to attain housing, healthcare, education, employment, maintenance and support [HEMS].

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