John was 17 years old in 1969.  He was somewhat rebellious, reckless, and always got caught.  One Friday afternoon in the late, hot afternoon in August of 1969, he was arrested for possessing marijuana. 

At 17 years of age, John went to prison.  Instead of being punished, he received an education from other inmates on how to perfect various crimes.  He would be in and out of prison for the rest of his life. 

Facing prison time is one of the most stressful situations a person can encounter.  The stress is multiplied when the defendant is young.  Some prisons are dangerous and all are full of men who have had a major brush with the law. As illustrated above, a prison sentence often leads a young offender down a path of further criminality rather than a road toward potential rehabilitation.

If a person is facing prison time, is under the age of 25, and has goals for rehabilitation, it is important to discuss being sentenced under the Youthful Offender Act (“Act”).  This strategy may be the best angle to take under some circumstances in order to provide the best conditions for success.

In 1971, Georgia passed the Act.  (O.C.G.A. § 42-7-8).  The Act allows the sentencing judge to make a written recommendation on the sentence that the defendant receive youthful offender treatment.

While COVID has changed the way that prisons operate, 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.

Young offenders have the chance to go to special facilities for their age group aimed at rehabilitation and skills training. Such programs can make a big difference for those seeking to turn their lives around.

However, 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.

It is also important not to confuse the Act with the First Offender Act. These two laws do different things.

The First Offender Act allows a defendant to enter a plea without being convicted.  If the defendant completes his or her sentence without getting into trouble, the judge will sign an order that states that the defendant has completed the First Offender sentence and has no conviction. 

It does not deal with opportunities while a defendant is incarcerated. Its purpose is to protect a first-time offender from having a life-long felony record.

The Act is also not a guarantee that a qualifying criminal defendant will be sent to a certain facility or not. As mentioned above, COVID has changed the way prisons operate. These decisions are made by the Department of Corrections; not the sentencing judge.

When the youthful offender completes his sentence, he will still be a convicted felon unless he was sentenced as a First Offender.  

This is a very good law that should be used in more cases. It falls right in line with the “smart on crime” approach to criminal justice that Governor Nathan Deal put into motion over 10 years ago.   

Those offenders who can be rehabilitated can become taxpaying and law-abiding citizens when they return to society.