A person's first ever criminal charge is a moment that he or she won't forget. Even upstanding citizens have found themselves exposed to the Montgomery County criminal justice system at least one point in their life, whether they were a juvenile or an adult. People in this predicament feel overwhelmed when they think about what to expect, the process they now have to endure, and most importantly, the outcome of their case.
How harsh a sentence hinges on several factors, such as the type of crime committed, the use of a deadly weapon, whether a crime was violent or nonviolent if it was a sex crime, and more. Overall, first-time convictions tend to carry less serious sentences. But with the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney, defendants can get their charges completely dropped, making it possible to maintain a clean record despite being arrested and charged.
Uncertainty about what's to come in the Montgomery County criminal justice system may make you feel like 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 in which you can get your charges completely dismissed. For the purposes of this article, we will address the county's criminal process, as well as the diversionary programs available that you could possibly be eligible for.
The Criminal Justice Process in Montgomery County
A preliminary hearing is one of the most important phases of the Montgomery County criminal justice process. It is usually scheduled within 30 to 45 days after charges are filed. At this hearing, the prosecution has the burden of proving that there is enough evidence to bind the charges against you over to the Court of Common Pleas. The Magistral Judge will not determine guilt or innocence, nor will there be corrective action made for an offense in this phase. The judge's duty is to merely determine if there is enough evidence for a defendant to go to trial. It is extremely important that you attend this hearing with an attorney who is familiar with the county's procedure, as it differs from county to county.
Approximately 30 to 60 days after your hearing, an arraignment in the Court of Common Pleas will be scheduled. An arraignment is a procedural hearing in which multiple things happen: the court will detail the crime you've been charged with, you'll be informed of your right to legal counsel, you will be asked to enter a plea, and an amount for bail will be set. Before attending this hearing, you should consult with a legal professional to pursue the course of action that will give you the best results.
A pre-trial conference is intended to fill in the judge on the overall status of your case. It is typically scheduled within 45 to 60 days after an arraignment. 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 successfully negotiated or offered during the pre-trial conference, your case will go to trial. This is where a jury will hear your case, deliberate, and propose a verdict. If you aren't at all familiar with how a trial is conducted, here's a brief overview of the typical order of events:
- Opening statements
- Presentation of prosecution's evidence
- Presentation of defense's evidence
- Closing arguments
Leniency towards first-time offenders is a method that has long been used by Montgomery Courts to prevent habitual offending. Unleashing the full extent of the law isn't as beneficial as taking a rehabilitative approach, especially given the nature of the crimes committed by most first time offenders. They are usually arrested for non-violent, minor offenses like drug possession or shoplifting. As they begin to offend more and more, the crimes get more serious. So, the goal is to remedy the addiction or behavior that leads them to break the law, rather than merely punishing them. The courts do this by putting some defendants in diversionary programs.
A diversionary program in the Montgomery County criminal justice system is a type of sentence in which an offender partakes in a rehabilitation. Among the most popular and effective diversionary programs in Montgomery 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 exclusively extended to the first time, nonviolent offenders. It's a program that is almost always recommended for people who've been charged with a DUI. But program coordinators have also noted substantial progress for members who have been charged with drug crimes, theft crimes, and other types of non-violent offenses.
If you are approved, you will be placed on supervision - a concept identical to probation - and assigned a supervisor that will help you achieve your goals in the program. Members are typically given a year to fulfill certain conditions that will help correct their behavior. The conditions you are assigned might be slightly different than the conditions another member is assigned. It depends on the unique circumstances of your case. The average first-time offender in the ARD program should, however, expect to complete the following conditions:
- Pay restitution
- Complete drug and/or alcohol counseling programs
- Regularly report to the Office of Adult Probation
- Avoid new charges while on supervision
- Undergo random drug tests
- Complete other evaluations requested by the court
In order to become a member of the Montgomery County ARD Program, you need the help of a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney. This program has strict eligibility requirements that keep many applicants from reaping its significant benefits. An attorney will be able to assist you in identifying barriers that could diminish your chances of being approved. A legal professional can also create a compelling argument to convince your arresting officer, the prosecution, and the judge that the county's ARD program is the best solution for your criminal charges.
Montgomery County Criminal Defense Attorney
If you've been arrested for the first time, you should consult with a Montgomery 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.