Answer: Sometimes. It depends on what the first time offender did, and where the offense occurred.
In the article that follows, we’ll explain.
Do First Time Offenders Go To Jail? (Explained)
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Introduction To Sentencing
Sentencing, whether it is for a first time offender or a repeat offender, is generally the same process.
The defendant’s plea is entered, either as the result of a jury verdict or a voluntary offering by the defendant.
Once the plea is lodged, the case moves to the sentencing phase.
How this plays out will depend on the jurisdiction and the laws that exist there.
For example, some activities (like driving under the influence of intoxicants) are treated as traffic tickets where jail is not an option.
In other states, that same behavior might be a misdemeanor, or a felony.
Each offense has a maximum penalty.
Usually misdemeanors are capped at 12 months of jail time, while the punishments for felonies vary from 1 year to life in prison.
At the sentencing hearing, the judge will hear from both the prosecution and the defense.
The judge will also give the victim a chance to speak, if he wishes to be heard.
After taking all the statements and arguments into consideration, the judges makes a decision and tells the defendant his sentence/punishment.
The prosecution and defense can agree to recommend the same sentence as part of a negotiated resolution.
But unless the judge has agreed to the sentence in advance, there is nothing that requires that the judge actually follow the recommendations of the parties.
Usually during the presentations by the lawyers, the basic facts of the case are related to the judge so she understands the severity of the case.
Factors That Determine The Sentence
There are many factors that play into the ultimate sentence the defendant receives.
The defendant’s prior criminal history (first offense, second offense, etc) is just one piece of the puzzle.
The judge will also consider:
- whether probation is an option, as some punishments (like jail) are mandated by statute
- whether an alternative disposition program (like a diversion) is available
- the prior convictions of the defendant
- the seriousness level of the crime (crimes that involve intentional acts, injured or dead people, significant property damage, and high dollar amounts are generally felonies)
- the actual facts of what the defendant is alleged to have done
- the impact of sending the defendant to jail on his employment and family (like will jail time put his family on the street)
- whether an alternative punishment would make sense
- the costs to the government of sending the defendant to jail
- the need for justice for the victim, the victim’s family, and the community
- whether punishment is necessary to deter the defendant from reoffending
- whether jail would help solve other issues (like the defendant’s addiction to substances or a lifestyle)
- whether the defendant has a support network available to help him stay on track
There are many other circumstances/facts that the defense may present to the court to try and persuade the judge that a non-jail sentence is appropriate.
Why Do Many First Time Offenders Avoid Jail?
There are several reasons why many first time offenders avoid jail.
First and foremost, most first time offenders don’t screw up that badly.
It is common for young people to make too much noise, to take things out of mischief, or to experiment with intoxicating substances.
In general, these offenses do not lead to significant injury or damage.
These first offenses are usually in the range of traffic tickets or low level misdemeanors.
Since these offenders have no prior criminal history, the offenses were minor, the community was not overly harmed, and everything else points at the individuals learning their lesson, probation (without jail) is deemed appropriate.
It is often the position of the bench that people make mistakes all the time, and foolish mistakes that don’t cause harm to anyone should not be held against a young person who is just getting started in life.
Second, first time offenders have no criminal history.
The judge doesn’t know yet whether the defendant will have a long history of not learning his lesson.
The judge doesn’t know yet if the defendant should have known better.
A defendant can claim once that he had no idea that the result would happen but on the next round, it is pretty clear that the defendant did have an idea.
In general, the punishments for all levels of offenses get more severe as the convictions rack up, especially when the convictions occur close together.
Third, many courts have alternative resolution opportunities for misdemeanor crimes for first time offenders.
Intoxicated driving is a great example of this.
In some states, a first time offender accused of driving after having too much to drink can avoid a conviction by attending treatment and counseling, and staying out of trouble for a lengthy period of time.
Other states will hold off on the conviction of the defendant behaves on probation and pays off the fines and restitution.
Fourth, jail is rarely a place where people learn to be better people.
Instead, they often learn to be better criminals.
Judges really want young people to learn from their mistakes and avoid the system for the rest of their lives.
Sending them to jail for a small offense may only make the problem worse.
Why Some First Time Offenders Go To Jail
There are a few reasons why jail might result in a first time offense.
First, the defendant’s lawyer might not have been aggressive or thorough enough.
Sometimes the lawyer you have at your side makes all the difference.
No-jail deals can be achieved by a thorough investigation and aggressive motion practice.
A prosecutor would much rather get a conviction with probation than no conviction at all.
Second, the facts were just really bad.
If people get hurt (or killed), or there was significant property damage, jail becomes more likely.
This is especially the case if the defendant behaved really badly in the things he said or did during the offense.
Third, the defendant might have been really unlikeable.
The defendant’s demeanor matters.
If the defendant doesn’t show respect to the court in his manner and speaking, he might end up with a worse sentence.
Fourth, the defendant didn’t show enough remorse.
The judges want to see that the defendant understood that what he did was wrong, and that he is sorry for it.
A defendant who is defiant is a defendant who needs to learn a lesson.
Will You Go To Jail?
We have no idea.
It depends heavily on the circumstances of the offense and the place the offense occurred.
But jail is always possible if you’ve been charged with something more serious than a traffic ticket.
To answer your question, you are better off seeking out the advice of a qualified criminal defense lawyer in the jurisdiction.
Want to learn more about your criminal justice system?
Browse our free legal library guides for more information.
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