In our last post, we discussed the ways in which people charged with a felony or misdemeanor in Georgia can use First Offender and Conditional Discharge to avoid having a criminal record. In this post, we will discuss other methods of protecting one’s record, which include pretrial diversion and accountability courts.
Many counties in Georgia offer programs that can lead to a dismissal or a “nolle pros” in your case, even if the evidence against you is very strong. When evidence is weak or non-existent in a case, it is good practice for your criminal defense attorney to push for the case to be dismissed. Unfortunately, this is not a very common result in most cases. However, many prosecutors’ offices still offer dismissals in cases if you qualify for and complete a program. Always be sure to ask your attorney if you might qualify for pretrial diversion or accountability courts.
Pretrial diversion is generally offered to first-time offenders for low-level misdemeanors such as shoplifting, theft, disorderly conduct, simple assault, and battery. Every county handles pretrial diversion differently so it is important that you consult with an attorney who is familiar with the county in which you are charged.
Most pretrial diversion programs require that you pay a fine, attend a class or classes, perform a small amount of community service, and undergo a short period of supervision. At the end of the supervision and if all the requirements are completed, the prosecutor agrees to dismiss the charge against you. This means that it will not enter in as a conviction on your record. Pretrial diversion is also usually less onerous than probation and cannot result in jail time if you fail to report or pay. The consequence for failing to complete pretrial diversion is that the case reverts back to being prosecuted as usual.
Many counties in Georgia have what are called accountability courts. Like with pretrial diversion, these programs take your case out of the normal court system and often result in a dismissal of your case upon completion of the program. Accountability courts include programs such as drug court, mental health court, veterans court, and DUI court. Each type of court and each county have specific requirements for entrance. Individuals with substantial criminal histories are frequently denied acceptance.
Drug court, for example, requires that you have a drug addiction and that the drug problem is the underlying issue behind the charge in your case. Drug court can be a great option for you if there is strong evidence against you in your case and if you are ready to beat your addiction. Drug courts in Georgia offer various forms of treatment, counseling, and drug screening to help people achieve sobriety. Drug court is anywhere between 18 months and 2 years, and is usually available to people charged with drug related crimes such as possession, theft, and fraud. Drug court is usually not available for serious violent felonies or drug sale or trafficking, but the requirements vary by county.
Mental health court (also known as resource court) is very similar to drug court, but requires that you have a professional medical diagnosis of a mental health problem such as bi-polar, schizophrenia, PTSD, or depression. In addition to substance abuse help, they focus on the mental health aspects that lead to criminality and provide counselors and medical treatment. Like with drug court, people accused of serious violent felonies usually do not qualify for mental health court. Veterans court treats both mental health and substance abuse, but is reserved for those who have served in the United States military.
While accountability courts could be a great option for you, there are consequences (called sanctions) if you fail drug tests, miss court dates, or commit new crimes. Failing to comply with program guidelines can lead to termination from the program and immediate sentencing for the underlying offense. Talk with your attorney about the pros and cons of accountability courts in deciding if applying to enter one is right for you. Accountability courts can be demanding, but frequently provide useful tools for those who are in need of mental health help or addiction recovery.
One of the greatest benefits of pretrial diversion and accountability courts is that they can help you keep your record clean through a dismissal at the end of the program. Dismissals are most common when a client does not have a criminal record. If a client has a criminal record already, accountability courts often replace the jail or prison sentence, but do not result in a dismissal. Just like First Offender and Conditional Discharge, pretrial diversion and accountability courts are additional tools that may help you keep your record clean in Georgia.
In our next blog post, we will discuss how your attorney can ask the judge to seal your First Offender record, which shields your arrest and First Offender status (while on probation) from public view.