If you are charged with a crime for the first time, you may not be looking at prison, or even jail time. People who know they won't go to jail often think that a quick guilty plea is the best way to put a nasty experience behind them quickly. Unfortunately, a conviction on your record may have equally nasty effects on your future. Even if you are eligible to have the conviction expunged at some future date, it will be available to the public until that time, and can influence potential employers, or keep you from getting the financial aid you need for college. For many offenders, there are alternatives to conviction that will let you walk away without a conviction on your record.
For many nonviolent crimes, such as theft, pretrial diversion is an option. Even felony offenses may be eligible for this program. To qualify for diversion, you must be willing to admit your guilt and offer a guilty plea, which the court will hold without a final judgment while you participate in a program similar to probation for a period of time. Requirements may include making restitution to the victim, attending an educational program and performing community service. If you successfully complete the program, the court will dismiss the charge against you and expunge the record of your arrest. This means that you will never be convicted of any crime, and even the record of your arrest will no longer be available to the public.
Some jurisdictions offer a mediation program for misdemeanor charges filed by private citizens. If your neighbor charges you with trespassing or damaging his property, for example, the court may be able to refer you to a court mediator who will try to talk both sides into resolving the case without pursuing the criminal charge. If both sides sign a settlement agreement, the charge will be dismissed by the court without trial. This option is usually not available for charges filed directly by a police officer, but may be offered for some charges that don't qualify for diversion.
Ohio, for example, has a program called intervention in lieu of conviction (ILC) for nonviolent crimes that are caused by a drug or alcohol problem. Some jurisdictions have dedicated drug courts to administer this program, but any judge can grant intervention in eligible felony or misdemeanor cases. Intervention is not available for traffic offenses such as OVI. It is not open to people charged with selling drugs, unless the charge is reduced to possession instead. It is available for charges other than possession, if the charge is brought about by the drug or alcohol problem. Theft or prostitution to support a drug habit is one example. ILC is similar to diversion in that it requires you to offer a guilty plea and complete a period of supervision. That supervision will specifically include treatment for your drug or alcohol problem, and testing to insure that you stay clean and sober for the treatment period. If you successfully complete the treatment and supervision period, your charge is dismissed and the arrest record is sealed.
All these programs have conditions and exceptions. Those conditions may be different in different counties or courts, and they often change. You need to speak with an attorney familiar with the court and programs available in your jurisdiction to find out is you may qualify for one of these alternatives. Don't expect the court to notify you, especially at your first appearance. If you just plead guilty the first time you go to court, you may never know that you could have avoided a conviction.