The term “first offense” is used to describe situations where a defendant is facing charges for the very first time: they have no previous criminal record, or at least no prior convictions. “First time offender” is used to describe the defendant who has no previous criminal record.

If you have never had a run-in with law enforcement before, facing criminal charges for the first time can be scary and intimidating, especially if you don’t know what to expect. Thankfully, if you are a first time offender, you may receive some leniency from the court, depending on the nature of the charges you’re facing.

What Happens If It’s Your First Offense?

First offenses are often associated with reduced sentences, lower fines, and alternative sentencing like parole or probation. However, this depends on the rules of your state and the nature of the charges that you’re facing.

For example, a first offense for Driving Under the Influence (or “DUI”) may be a little bit different than a first offense for another crime. DUI offenses in general tend to be taken very seriously by the courts due to the danger they present to the public. A first time DUI offense may be classified as misdemeanors, unless the offense is combined with other serious crimes (such as resisting an officer or vehicular homicide).

Even for a first offense, DUI charges can face serious consequences, which may include:

  • Fines: Each state has its own rules when it comes to the amounts that can be charged in fines. The fine will depend on the facts and circumstances of the case, as well. For example, if a driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC) is above a certain amount, or if there were children in the vehicle at the time of the DUI, then the driver may face a higher fine;
  • Suspended License: Many states immediately suspend your driver license if you are charged with a DUI. The amount of time that your license may be suspended, however, will also depend on the facts and circumstances of the case. Certain circumstances (like having children in the vehicle when you’re driving while intoxicated) can increase the amount of time of suspension;
  • Probation: Probation is a common part of a sentence for DUI offenses in nearly every state. Conditions for probation, however, may vary depending on state law. Most cases that involve probation will likely also involve jail time, fines, or counseling;
  • Drug and Alcohol Counseling: Most states require that DUI offenders complete some form of counseling as part of their sentence. Depending on state law, first time DUI offenders may complete a course of alcohol counseling and probation as an alternative to jail time. Others may complete the counseling in combination with jail time; and
  • Community Service: This is often required of DUI offenders as part of their sentence, as well.

You may also face jail time as part of your sentence, even as a first time offender. Depending on your state, jail time for first time DUI offenders can range from a few days to a few months. State law has particular rules regarding minimum and maximum sentences, but in many states the court has discretion regarding the length of time as long as the sentence fits within the mandated range.

“Smaller” or less severe crimes are less likely to face such serious punishments as DUIs. For example, if your first offense is simple assault or public intoxication, you may be more likely to face fines, community service, and probation as punishment. Like with DUIs, though, subsequent offenses will result in increasing punishments. (The more offenses on your criminal record, the harsher your punishments.)

Committing the same offense multiple times is known as a “repeat offense,” and repeat offenses can have a major impact on sentencing, as well. In addition to resulting in heftier sentences due to a defendant’s criminal record, repeat offenses can also elevate a crime from a misdemeanor to a felony. Felony convictions are often associated with harsher punishments than misdemeanors, including more expensive fines and longer jail sentences. Multiple felony convictions may also result in earning the status of “habitual felon,” depending on the state, and can impact sentencing requirements, as well.

What is a First Offenders Program?

First-time criminal offenders may be eligible for alternative sentencing programs known as First Offender Programs. These programs are known as diversionary programs, and are intended to serve as rehabilitation programs instead of criminal punishments. The idea is to rehabilitate first-time offenders and correct the behavior that led to the defendant’s criminal offense, so that they do not commit the same crimes in the future.

State first offender programs generally require a combination of community service requirements, mandatory counseling programs, and routine drug and alcohol testing as part of the rehabilitative process. Some states require restitution to victims of criminal acts, and others have a classroom component that the defendant must complete as part of the program.

The federal government also offers a first offender program for defendants charged or convicted of certain federal drug crimes. Generally speaking, the defendant is placed on probation for a year and must complete certain program requirements. If the defendant completes the first offender program successfully, the court will dismiss the proceedings without entering the judgment of conviction. However, if the defendant violates their probation, the court will enter the conviction and proceed with sentencing.

These programs also offer certain benefits to defendants who complete the program. For example, a defendant who successfully completes their first offender program requirements may be eligible to be released early from jail or parole. In many cases, successful completion of a first offender program also allows a first time offender to keep a clean record, and any criminal background checks will not show the offense. However, this will no longer be the case if the defendant then earns any new criminal convictions. Those subsequent convictions will appear on a criminal background check.

Who Can Enter a First Offender Program?

Not all first time offenders qualify for first offender programs. Repeat offenders are not eligible for the programs. While eligibility requirements can vary from state to state, it is common for first offender programs to be available for defendants whose charges do not involve violent offenses. The types of convictions usually associated with first offender programs tend to be “minor” or less serious crimes, which can include charges of petty theft or shoplifting, first time DUI offenses, and minor drug convictions.

To qualify for the federal first offender program, the defendant must not have any prior state or federal drug convictions, and must not have been previously involved in any other state or federal first offender program.

Do I Need a Lawyer If I Am Put Into a First Offenders Program?

If you have never been charged with a crime before, it is possible for you to defend the charges on your own. However, dealing with the court system, especially if you have never had to do so before, can be intimidating. It is in your best interest to consult a qualified criminal defense lawyer in order to get the best information about how to proceed with your case.

The right lawyer can answer any questions you have about the legal process, advise you about the best way to protect your rights, represent you in court, and help you determine whether you are eligible for a first offender program.