One of the most sad and difficult types of cases that I handle is when a young man is charged with a serious crime and there is overwhelming evidence to support the charged crime. While there are many options to incarceration, sometimes the prosecutor simply will not agree to anything but a prison sentence. If the crime is serious enough, the judge will not go along with a probated sentence anyway.

Fortunately, there is a rarely used provision in Georgia law that can be quite helpful under these circumstances. It is called the Youthful Offender Act.

In 1971, the General Assembly enacted the Youthful Offender Act which is defined by statute. The Act may be available to defendants who are at least 17 but less than 25 years old at the time of their conviction.

If the person is sentenced under the Act and accepted by the Department of Corrections, the youthful offender will undergo treatment in a secure institution, including training schools, hospitals, farms, facilities, and other institutions. To the extent possible, these options will be used for treatment of offenders who have the potential and desire for rehabilitation.

It is very important to note that the Act provides that the trial judge may only recommend in the sentence that a person be given youthful offender treatment. The sentence of the court is sent to the Department of Corrections with the recommendation. The Department of Corrections determines whether to accept the recommendation of the sentencing judge.

Another important aspect of the Act is that it does not function like Georgia’s First Offender Act. When the youthful offender completes his sentence, he will still be a convicted felon. In fact, the Youthful Offender Act only applies to felony cases.

Based on my experience, this is a very good law that should be used in more cases. It also falls right in line with the rehabilitation approach to criminal justice. Those offenders who can be rehabilitated can become tax paying, law-abiding citizens when they return to society.

Since it is a discretionary type of sentence, the Department of Corrections can separate the young people who want a second chance at living a productive life in society and those who simply don’t care whether they are in prison or not. This part of the Act saves our resources for those who want to take advantage of the programs provided by the Act.

In most cases, watching a client go into the custody of the sheriff in court after being sentenced is one of the most difficult things for a criminal defense attorney to experience. When prison or another form of incarceration is unavoidable, I focus on the sentencing options that will help the client while he or she is in custody.

The Youthful Offender Act is one of those beneficial options under the right circumstances.