Like many states, Georgia distinguishes misdemeanors from felonies based on the amount of time a person could potentially spend behind bars. If a sentence allows incarceration for a year or less, the crime is a misdemeanor. Sentences of more than a year fall under the category of felonies.
This article will discuss the penalties and sentencing options for Georgia misdemeanors.
Georgia divides misdemeanors into two categories:
In some cases, a crime will start off as a misdemeanor and increase to a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature if any of the following apply:
For instance, both simple assault and simple battery are misdemeanor offenses. The penalty increases to a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature for an assault or battery committed against a family or household member or a pregnant woman. Similarly, a person convicted of a DUI faces a misdemeanor penalty for a first or second conviction but a third conviction bumps up the penalty to a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.
Some misdemeanor offenses carry mandatory minimum sentences that cannot be suspended or probated. For instance, a second battery conviction against the same victim carries a mandatory sentence of 10 days in jail that the defendant must serve. Misdemeanor hate crimes carry an even stiffer mandatory jail sentence of six months. This penalty applies to the crimes of simple assault, simple battery, battery, criminal trespass, and theft when the defendant targeted the victim based on their actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.
Georgia law provides enhanced felony penalties for certain repeat misdemeanors. For instance, an offender charged with a third or subsequent misdemeanor offense for theft by refund fraud faces enhanced felony charges. As another example, a second or subsequent convicted for pimping or keeping a place of prostitution increases from a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature to a 10-year felony.
A defendant convicted of a misdemeanor will likely be sentenced immediately after conviction. Judges have several options at their disposal when sentencing misdemeanor offenses, including sentencing alternatives to jail time. The law also allows prosecutors to offer diversion programs that present a chance to avoid criminal court and a conviction altogether.
In counties that offer pretrial diversion, the district attorney holds off on prosecuting the case based on the defendant's agreement to abide by program conditions. Conditions might include submitting to random drug tests, attending counseling or treatment, completing community service hours, and not committing any other crimes. Successful completion typically results in the charges being dropped, meaning the offender won't even go to court. For a violation, however, the prosecution will usually proceed with the criminal charges.
For offenders who go to court and are convicted of a misdemeanor, the judge can order one or more of the following sentencing options:
When imposing a misdemeanor sentence, the judge can suspend or probate all or any portion of the sentence term (unless a mandatory sentence applies). Basically, the judge holds off on sending the defendant to jail as long as the defendant abides by the probation terms. A defendant subject to a suspended sentence doesn't usually report to a probation officer, whereas those subject to probated sentences are supervised.
Misdemeanor probation offers offenders a chance to serve all or a portion of their sentence in the community rather than behind bars. The threat of jail time continues to loom as an incentive to comply with probation terms. Violating probation means the judge can modify the probation terms (such as adding requirements) or revoke the probated sentence and send the defendant to jail to serve the remainder of the sentence.
Standard probation terms generally include reporting to the court or a probation officer, going to work or school, supporting legal dependents, not violating the law, paying restitution, performing community service, and undergoing drug or alcohol testing. Special conditions might include no-contact orders, electronic monitoring, counseling, or addiction treatment.
Georgia law also offers several sentencing alternatives to prison for first-time offenders and offenders whose crimes stem from underlying issues such as addiction or mental health.
First offenders or conditional discharge. A judge may grant first-offender status to individuals who've never had a felony conviction. Conditional-discharge status applies to certain first-time drug offenders. For both, instead of entering a conviction, the judge may suspend the proceedings and place the defendant on probation. If the defendant successfully completes the probation terms, the judge dismisses the case entirely and the offender avoids a conviction and a criminal record.
Accountability courts. Accountability courts aim to address an offender's underlying addiction or mental health issues. These courts involve a team of professionals who work together to develop a treatment plan and hold the offender accountable. Common accountability courts include drug court, DUI court, mental health court, and veterans' courts. They typically involve intensive supervision, immediate sanctions, and frequent court appearances. Eligibility depends on the specific court's rules and referral requirements. Participation is voluntary. The judge can assign a defendant to an accountability court prior to entering a sentence, as part of the sentence, or upon considering a petition to revoke probation.
Prosecutors face time limits—called statutes of limitations—for filing criminal charges. Georgia requires prosecutors to file misdemeanor charges within two years of the offense. Learn more about how criminal statutes of limitations work in this article.
While a misdemeanor carries less serious penalties than a felony, a misdemeanor conviction can still have serious, negative consequences. For instance, any time in jail could potentially lead to the loss of your job or even your housing (even if you're not convicted). Having a misdemeanor conviction can make it difficult to find a job, obtain housing, apply for loans, or qualify for a professional license.
If you're facing any criminal charges, contact a criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights throughout the proceedings and help you obtain a favorable outcome. Local attorneys know the system, prosecutors, and judges well, which can be helpful in your defense. Be sure to ask your attorney if your misdemeanor qualifies for record restriction or expungement.
(O.C.G.A. §§ 15-18-80; 16-13-2; 17-3-2.1; 17-10-3, -4, -17; 42-8-102 (2021).