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Key Considerations for First-Time Offenders in New Jersey

February 18, 2024

So you were charged with your first offense and you’re wondering how bad your situation is. The good news is, as a first-time offender in NJ, you may have more options than you realize.

First-Time Offender Charges and Top Defenses in Burlington County NJ

Although no one goes through life error-free, some mistakes have devastating consequences, whether by wrong choices, mistakes in judgment, or dire necessity. For a first-time offender, getting arrested, booked, and jailed can be traumatic. The fear of not knowing what will happen and the isolation from familiar faces can overwhelm those entangled in the New Jersey criminal justice system. What you may not realize is that they have more options than someone who has a criminal history or a prior DWI. First-time offenders may benefit from judicial rehabilitative attitudes and programs in New Jersey, from detention hearings to sentencing. Likewise, diversionary programs that offer alternatives to incarceration are only available to those with a clean record.

If Your Charge is a First DUI, Consider:

Whether your charges include an indictable crime, a disorderly persons offense, or a quasi-criminal traffic violation, some laws recognize first time offenses as a mitigating factor in sentencing. For example, penalties for drunk driving include lower fines, surcharges, and restricted driving requirements for a first DWI than for repeat offenders.

A first-time drunk driving conviction may result in up to 30 days in jail, plus various fines, surcharges, time in driver education programs, and driving with an ignition interlock device (IID) installed, from 3 to 15 months, depending on the level of your blood alcohol. Fortunately, you can normally avoid a license suspension once you install the IID unless the DWI is for drugs. Even first-time drugged drivers get a minimum seven-month license suspension. However, a second conviction for a DWI within ten years results in a possible two-year license suspension and a two-to-four-year sentence to an IID. The penalties are even worse for a third DUI offense.

If Your First-Time Charge is for Drugs, Consider:

Aside from DWI breaks for first-timers, those charged with drug crimes may receive lighter sentences when they have a clear criminal history. For example, a prosecutor may consider a plea bargain that avoids imprisonment for a first-time offender charged with drug possession. Drug Court is another alternative to jail for first-time offenders whose offense stems from addiction. So, a drug possession charge may result in a sentence to drug court rehabilitation resources, like counseling, 12-step programs, and rehabilitation facilities, when your addiction leads to the charges, and you plead guilty to the charges. A separate program for veterans with drug problems or mental health issues is available as the Veterans Criminal Diversion Program, which offers a host of rehabilitative and support services.

A municipal court may also allow you to enroll in a diversionary program rather than jail, such as the conditional discharge program. The program is open to those with no prior offenses and includes probation with conditions requiring participants to take drug tests and stay clean for six months to a year of the program. For instance, if you receive a conditional discharge for possessing a small number of illegal drugs, you will have no conviction for the offense on your record when you complete the program. The judge dismisses the offense when you fulfill the program’s terms.

If Your First Criminal Case is for an Indictable Crime, Consider:

Indictable crimes carry stiffer penalties for more serious offenses under NJ law. Even those without a criminal history face harsh penalties, the same ones as anyone else. However, when courts have discretion in sentencing, they may consider a clean record as a mitigating factor. Especially when it comes to first-time drug offenses, a judge may lean toward rehabilitation over prison. Prosecutors may also consider reducing certain second to third degree crimes in a plea bargain for a shorter prison term or avoiding the second degree crime presumption of incarceration.

A diversionary program is also available for indictable offenses prosecuted in Superior Court. The Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) program is open to those with no prior criminal convictions to help an individual move on without a criminal conviction on their record. However, to get in, you must face a non-violent, indictable criminal conviction and not have previously participated in PTI, conditional dismissal, or conditional discharge programs. Completing the program results in avoiding incarceration and a clean record.

If You are Charged with a Municipal Court Offense with No Prior Record, Consider:

Perhaps your charge is disorderly conduct, a petty disorderly persons offense that the municipal court handles. In these cases, judges may consider your clean record in sentencing. They could determine that 30 days in jail for a first-time offense is inappropriate and sentence you to fewer days in jail, probation, community service, fines, or another lesser penalty. In other words, a judge has options to avoid sentencing a first-time offender to jail.

Importantly, you may be able to avoid a sentence altogether and maintain a clean criminal record by getting a conditional dismissal. By enrolling in this program, avoiding arrests, and complying with conditions imposed, you can stay out of jail on a probationary basis and then have the charges dismissed in your case.

If Your First-Time Offender Charge Has Special Sentencing Conditions, Consider:

Some crimes are not usually considered eligible for diversionary programs or sentence reductions, even if it is your first offense. For example, gun crimes are subject to the Graves Act, which requires those convicted of a gun crime to serve a mandatory minimum portion of their sentence. They are not eligible for parole before serving a mandatory minimum sentence unless they get a Graves Act waiver. A successful waiver improves your chances of a lower sentence and avoiding incarceration, so having an attorney with experience in gun crime defense is critical. Seek help from a lawyer who understands the intricacies of obtaining a Graves Act waiver and, thus, a reduced sentence. Our attorneys at Proetta, Oliver, & Fay can prepare the necessary documents to show you qualify for the waiver, which consists of proof that you are a responsible person: employed, good character, and otherwise respectful of the law.

Likewise, the No Early Release Act (NERA) has mandatory minimum sentencing for those convicted of the most heinous crimes. Crimes like murder, manslaughter, second degree aggravated assault, vehicular homicide, sexual assault, robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, and other violent first and second degree crimes are often subject to NERA. That means you can expect to spend 85% of your sentence in prison for a NERA criminal conviction, even as a first-time offender.

Charged with a First-Time Offense in Burlington County, NJ? Be Proactive

When it is your first offense, you can help yourself the most by being proactive. Facing your first run-in with the law can be brutal, but with the right help, you may be surprised at the available options. Get help from a highly skilled criminal defense attorney on our legal team at Proetta, Oliver, & Fay. Judges can be more lenient when we can demonstrate that you are better served by alternatives to jail or prison. Additionally, a prosecutor is more likely to accept you into a diversionary program or reduce your sentence when one of our criminal defense lawyers advocates for you and pushes hard to get you a better sentence.

Do not squander your opportunity to benefit from New Jersey’s openness to first-time offenders. A talented criminal defense lawyer at our firm can paint a picture of someone whose mistake does not have to haunt them for the rest of their life with the right services and clean start opportunity. Contact us to discuss at (609) 850-8284 for your first-time offender charges in Burlington, Evesham, Pemberton, Lumberton, Florence, Bordentown, Mount Laurel, Mount Holly, and surrounding communities.

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New Jersey 08053
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New Jersey, 08691
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New Jersey 08742
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Middletown Township,
New Jersey 07748
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