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Clean slate offered to lawbreakers

CONYERS -- Lawbreakers are offered a second chance at a clean slate through the first offender status, but the option for a sort of judicial reprieve has officials carefully considering who should receive it.

Defendants can ask a Superior Court judge for first offender status before sentencing. After satisfying the requirements laid out by the court, first offender status means the defendant would never have to say they were convicted of a crime. The judge signs a discharge after conditions are met and the charge is erased from criminal history records across the country.

"Technically, you're never convicted if you're a first offender," said Rockdale County Chief Superior Court Judge Sidney Nation. "The question is whether you're really helping them or not."

Nation explained if the person violates the terms -- typically probation time or a fine -- the person could receive the maximum sentence of the original charge. When deciding to grant first offender status, Nation said he considers if the person is "known to fall off the wagon and commit another crime."

But five to 10 percent, "closer to five percent," of first offenders, according to Nation, abide by the terms of the court.

District Attorney Richard Read agreed.

"All you have to do is abide by the terms and conditions that the court lays down. If you do that ... at the end of that time, your case is closed and it's sealed and it's wiped out as if it never occurred," Read said.

If the crime is not heinous or detrimental to victims, Read explained, the DA's office usually has no objections to defendants asking the judge for first offender status.

"I would think that the majority of those folks who request first offender are able to comply with the requirements set by the court and be successful under the first offender status," Read said.

First offender has "a sword aspect and a shield aspect," Read said, and prosecution and defense attorneys make sure the accused understands "the flip side" of first offender status beforehand.

Those who ask for first offender status typically get it, according to Nation. People are allowed only one first offender request and Nation said most won't use it on misdemeanor charges. Commonly, non-violent criminals with no other criminal history ask for first offender status.

"It's what it says. It's a first offender, gives them the benefit of the doubt, lets them try to straighten out," Nation said. "If they don't do it, you still have them for that probationary period."

Allowing offenders to maintain a clean criminal record often translates to employment eligibility and other opportunities down the road.

"People make choices and there are consequences for those choices," Nation said. "We all make mistakes, but the point is, what are you going to do to correct the choice you made and do better with yourself?"

Read explained that first offender status gives people the ability to avoid having a mistake hang over their head the rest of their lives.

"The purpose is to continue to hold people accountable," Read said.

However, first offender status, like all sentencing, is not just pulled from the air, Nation said. He looks at the whole picture -- the defendant's background, make-up, character and other factors -- when deciding a sentence.

"Everybody's different. There's no crime that's alike. There are no two people who are alike," Nation said. "And when you say that everyone ought to be treated exactly the same just because they got a crime with a certain label -- I think it's a mistake."

Without that sort of discretion, Nation said judges could just be replaced with computers if everyone received the same sentence for the same offenses.

"When you say 20 years, that's a whack out of somebody's life," Nation said. "It's very serious business."