A person's first criminal charge is a moment that they'll remember for the rest of their life. People in this predicament oftentimes worry about what's to come, the process, and most importantly, the outcome of their case. The severity of a sentence will vary based on a number of factors, like the type of crime committed, if other people were harmed, if a weapon was used to carry out a crime, if the crime is classified as violent or nonviolent, and more. Ultimately, in most cases, first time convictions carry pretty lenient sentences. But an experienced attorney can help you get your charges dropped, and keep your record clean.
Uncertainty about what's next in the Chester County criminal justice system may lead you to believe that avoiding a conviction is impossible. But this couldn't be further from the truth. With the assistance of an attorney, there are several ways you can get your charges completely dismissed. For the purposes of this article, we will explore the county's criminal process, and the diversionary alternative programs you could possibly be eligible for.
The Criminal Justice Process in Chester County
A preliminary hearing is the most important part of the Chester County criminal justice process. During this hearing, a judge considers evidence the prosecution (the Commonwealth) presents to decide whether there is probable cause to back the charges made against you. The goal of a preliminary hearing is to ensure that you aren't wrongfully arrested, charged, detained, or convicted. If the prosecution fails to provide evidence that somewhat substantiates the elements of a crime, and that there is a possibility that you committed said crime, your case will be dismissed. If, however, the Magistrate judge comes to the conclusion that the prosecution has provided substantial evidence to put you on trial, the case will advance to the Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings.
Within 30 to 60 days of a preliminary hearing, a formal arraignment in the Court of Common Pleas will be scheduled. Arraignment is a procedural hearing in which several events will happen: the court will detail the crime you've been charged with, you will be notified of your right to legal counsel, you will be asked to enter a plea, and an amount for bail will be decided. Before attending this hearing, you should consult with an attorney to assess your options and choose your course of action.
The pre-trial conference is usually scheduled within 45 to 60 days after an arraignment. Also known as a status hearing, this conference is an attempt to resolve last-minute issues before a trial. This is also the time when a plea bargain is usually offered.
If a plea deal isn't negotiated during a pre-trial conference, the case will go to trial. This is where a jury will hear your case, deliberate and propose a verdict. If you aren't familiar with the trial process, here is a typical order of events:
- Opening statements
- Presentation of prosecution's evidence
- Presentation of defense's evidence
- Closing arguments
Chester County courts practice leniency towards first-time offenders to deter habitual offending. People with first offenses aren't exposed to the full extent of the law and are provided with more of a rehabilitative remedy to disorderly behavior or addictions in an effort to keep from creating recidivists. First-time offenders are usually arrested for minor and non-violent crimes like drug possession, shoplifting, or public drunkenness. Diversionary treatment and programs would likely help people who commit these crimes more than a jail or prison sentence would.
A diversionary program in the Chester County criminal justice system is a form of sentence in which a defendant participates in a rehabilitation program. Instead of punishing people for committing a crime, the program aims to remedy the addiction or behavior that led to an arrest.
Among the most popular and effective diversionary programs in Chester County is the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) program. It keeps members accountable, while also helping them maintain a clean record if successfully completed.
The Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) Program
ARD is a pre-trial diversionary intervention program that is only offered for the first time, nonviolent offenders. It's a program that has been deemed really compatible for people who have acquired DUIs. But program coordinators have noticed significant process for people who are charged with drug crimes, theft crimes, and other non-violent offenses.
If you are approved, you will be placed on what's known as “supervision” - a concept that's very similar to probation. You'll be assigned a supervisor that will help you stay on top of achieving your goals. Typically, members are given an entire year to fulfill all the terms necessary for completion. The terms assigned will vary from member to member depending on the unique circumstances of their case. But the average member of the ARD program can expect to abide by most the following terms:
- Pay restitution
- Undergo random drug tests
- Complete drug and/or alcohol counseling programs
- Periodically to the Office of Adult Probation
- Avoid new charges while on supervision
- Complete other evaluations requested by the court
Acceptance into the Chester County ARD Program requires the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. Not everyone who applies is approved due to its relatively strict eligibility requirements. An attorney will be able to help you identify potential challenges that could foil your plans to join. A legal professional can also make an effort to convince your arresting officer, the prosecution, and the judge that the ARD program is the best possible remedy for your criminal charges.
Chester County Criminal Defense Attorney
If you've been arrested for the first time, you should consult with a Chester County criminal defense attorney to discuss your options. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has successfully represented countless 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) 535-5353.