The stigma of being a convicted felon in Georgia is staggering. Convicted felons are shunned by society, lose important rights, and miss out on lucrative job opportunities.
The state of Georgia loses as well when we have a large number of convicted felons. Talented workers are barred from industry which stagnates the economy, increases welfare rolls, and reduces income tax revenue.
There are a number of ways to avoid a felony conviction. Dismissals, reduction to misdemeanors, and pre-trial diversion are common ways to help a person avoid a felony conviction.
Another procedure that is used is asking a judge for a client to be sentenced under Georgia’s First Offender Act.
Thousands of people have avoided becoming convicted felons by taking advantage of The First Offender Act, sometimes referred to as Georgia’s “second chance law.” The First Offender Act was first enacted in 1968 and allows certain people charged with their first felony offense to avoid both a conviction and a public record if they successfully complete their sentence.
Under the First Offender Act, a criminal defendant who has not previously been convicted of a felony may plead guilty and be sentenced by the court. While most of these sentences involve probation, a person can actually go to prison and still avail himself of First Offender treatment if the judge is convinced that First Offender is appropriate.
Upon completion of the sentence, the defendant “shall be discharged without court adjudication of guilt.”
First Offender treatment has a risk associated with it as well. If a person is sentenced as a First Offender and violates the terms of probation, he or she can have their First Offender status revoked and be re-sentenced by the judge up to the maximum for the offenses the defendant plead guilty to.
However, many who are eligible for first offender treatment are not informed of such when the case is resolved.
This year, the General Assembly and Governor Nathan Deal made another huge stride in fixing our criminal justice system by passing and signing House Bill 310.
House Bill 310 is primarily an overhaul of the state’s probation system. The bill also provides for First Offender protections retroactively. Thus, upon approval of the court and the prosecutor, a defendant who would have been eligible for sentencing under the First Offender Act may receive First Offender treatment and have the Georgia Bureau of Investigation modify his or her criminal record.
However, the judge maintains discretion whether to grant such petitions on the basis that doing so would be in the best interest of the community.
Thus, some convicted felons will have a second chance to have a felony conviction removed from their record.
These new provisions do not apply to serious violent felonies and certain crimes of moral turpitude, specifically, crimes involving children, the elderly, and the disabled.
There are many Georgians who may take advantage of this new law. The ideal candidate would be a person who entered a plea to a non-violent felony in the past who was not informed by his or her lawyer about the availability of First Offender treatment.
I have seen a number of cases like this.
I hope that this column will reach and inform our citizens about this significant change in the law. This new provision can help friends, family members, and others in our community. It will also help our state economically.