A person's first criminal charge is a disheartening moment that he or she will remember for the rest of their life. One can be labeled a first-time offender at any point in their life - whether they are a juvenile or an adult. People in this predicament experience an overwhelming amount of stress and uncertainty about what's to come, the process, and most importantly, their verdict. The severity of a sentence will vary based on a number of factors, like the type of crime allegedly committed, if other people were harmed, if a weapon was used, if the crime is categorized as violent or nonviolent, and more. In most cases, first-time convictions tend to carry more lenient sentences. An experienced criminal defense attorney, however, can make it so a first-time criminal offender gets their charges dropped, making it possible for them to keep their record clean.
Uncertainty about what comes next in the Bucks County criminal justice system may lead you to believe that you can't avoid a conviction. But this couldn't be further from the truth. With the help of an attorney, there are several ways you can get your charges dismissed. For the purposes of this article, we will explore the entirety of the county's criminal process, and the diversionary alternative you could be eligible for.
The Criminal Justice Process in Bucks County
During a preliminary hearing, a judge considers evidence the prosecution (the Commonwealth) presents to decide whether there is probable cause to support the charges against you. If the prosecution fails to provide evidence that meets this evidentiary standard, your case will be dismissed. If, however, the Magistrate judge concludes that the prosecution has substantial evidence to put you on trial, the case will progress to the Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings.
After a preliminary hearing, a formal arraignment will be scheduled. An arraignment is also a hearing. It is at this phase in the process where the court formally charges you with a crime. At this hearing, the court will detail the crime you were charged with, inform you of your right to legal counsel, ask you to enter a plea, and set an amount for bail. The most important part of this process is your choice of pleading either “guilty” or “not guilty.” It's recommended you have an attorney by your side before making a plea so you can make the best possible decision.
A pre-trial is intended to fill in the judge on the overall status of your case. A case could be going straight to trial, it could be delayed, or a plea deal may be negotiated (and you won't have to go to trial). Whatever state your case is in, it will be discussed between your representation, the prosecution, and the judge.
If a plea deal isn't negotiated in the pre-trial phase, the case will go to trial. This is where you will receive a verdict. In most cases, your case will go before a jury trial. If you aren't too familiar with the trial process, here's a general order of events:
- Opening statements
- Presentation of prosecution's evidence
- Presentation of defense's evidence
- Closing arguments
Leniency towards first-time offenders is a strategic method that is intended to avert habitual offending. First-time offenders are usually arrested for non-violent, minor offenses like drug possession or shoplifting. By refusing to unleash the full extent of the law or by offering diversionary treatment and programs, the courts are making an effort to curb recidivism.
A diversionary program in the Bucks County criminal justice system is a form of sentence in which an offender partake in a rehabilitation program. Rather than merely punishing people for bad behavior, these programs are an approach that remedies the behavior that led to an arrest. For example, If the courts find out that a person arrested for drug trafficking was selling drugs to fuel their drug addiction, he or she could enter a diversionary program to rehabilitate them from their drug addiction. Or if an individual was arrested for a DUI involving alcohol, their diversionary program could include AA meetings and other forms of therapy.
Among the most popular and effective diversionary programs in Bucks County is the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) program. It keeps offenders accountable, while also helping them maintain a clean criminal record if successfully completed.
The Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) Program
ARD is a diversionary pre-trial intervention program that is solely extended to first-time, non-violent offenders. It's a program that is almost always recommended for first-time offenders who've been charged with a DUI. But program coordinators have also noted significant progress for people who are charged with drug crimes, theft crimes, and other types of non-violent behaviors.
If accepted, a defendant will be placed on supervision - a concept that resembles probation - and assigned a supervisor that will help members stay on top of their goals. Typically, members are given a year to fulfill all the conditions necessary for completion. The conditions assigned will vary from member to member depending on the unique circumstances of each case. The average first-time offender in the ARD program will, however, likely have to pay restitution, complete community service, undergo random drug tests, periodically check in with their supervisor, and attend some form of counseling.
To be accepted into the Bucks County ARD program, the help of a criminal defense attorney is required. Not everyone is accepted into this program, as it upholds relatively strict eligibility requirements. An attorney can help you identify potential barriers that could diminish your chances of being approved. They can also make an effort to convince an arresting officer, prosecutor, and a judge that the program is the best resolution for a first-time offender's criminal charges.
Bucks County Criminal Defense Attorney
If you've been arrested for the first time, you should consult with a Bucks County criminal defense attorney to discuss your options. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has successfully represented numerous clients who've acquired misdemeanor and felony charges and has helped them get their sentence reduced, and their charges dismissed. For a case evaluation, contact him today online or by phone at (215) 535-5355.