It is almost never a good idea to plead guilty at your first court appearance without checking to see if there are alternatives to a criminal conviction. Criminal convictions tend to follow you for years, possibly for life. They affect your credit and job prospects, your ability to get a professional license or work in certain jobs or for certain employers. These consequences are often far worse than any sentence you might get from the court. It may seem simpler to just plead guilty, especially if you are told you will get probation, but remember that court is just the beginning, not the end, of the consequences you face.
Most people who come to me for representation don't understand that convictions never just "drop off" your record after a certain period of time. Once a criminal conviction is placed in the public record, it is there for the rest of your life unless a court orders it sealed or expunged.
In Ohio, for example, expungement is only possible only if you are a first offender. Any prior criminal conviction, and certain traffic convictions like DUIs, will prevent you from ever becoming eligible for expungement. For more information on expunging records in Ohio, see Expunging or Sealing Adult Criminal Records in Ohio.
Even if you are eligible for expungement, you have to file a motion and appear in court to ask for it, and the judge has a choice to grant or deny your request. Expunged records are still available to the police and courts, and can be disclosed to certain employers if relevant to the job you are seeking. Even worse, credit agencies and employee investigation firms can access information about your conviction before expungement, and they are not required to erase that information once your record is expunged. Many employers use such firms to investigate job applications. Once they have your information, they will continue to use it.
Most courts have diversion programs for nonviolent offenses like theft. Even someone charged with felony theft charges may be eligible for diversion. A diversion program is similar to probation, but with one life-changing difference--you are never convicted of a crime. When you are accepted for diversion, you may be required to attend an educational program, pay restitution, perform community service and avoid any further arrests for a period of time. If you successfully follow these rules, your charge will be dismissed, and in many cases the record of your arrest can be expunged from the public records. Always check to see if you might be eligible for such a program before you give up and plead guilty.
Learn more about Diversion Programs to Avoid Criminal Conviction.
There is also a possibility that your case may be defendable in court. The following issues may arise in your shoplifting case:
I had one case where the store changed a misdemeanor to a felony by including sales tax in the total value of the merchandise stolen. If we hadn't insisted on proof, the client would have been convicted of a felony. Instead, the state had to reduce to a misdemeanor.
Remember, you still have the choice of pleading guilty if you have explored all the alternatives and you still believe that a guilty plea is your best option. A guilty plea should be your fallback position, not your first choice.