Sentencing Programs to Help First-Time Offenders

Following a first arrest, it is normal to experience a number of emotions, such as confusion and fear. If you’ve never been convicted of a crime before, sentencing can be nerve-wracking. However, as a first-time offender, you may be able to mitigate your sentence and avoid or reduce your time in jail. Both federal and state governments have implemented “first offender” programs designed to help keep people out of prison and reduce recidivism rates. 

These opportunities can be helpful, but only if you know how they work. Here’s what you need to know about first offender programs, how to find them, and how to ensure you’re eligible. 

First Offender Programs

First offender programs come in two general forms. The first and most common structure is a diversion program. These plans allow people who have been or may be convicted of a crime for the first time to mitigate their sentence by enrolling in an anti-recidivism program relevant to their charges. 

The alternative structure is a post-sentencing education program. These are courses that incarcerated first offenders can take that address issues like adjusting to prison and preparing for release. They may provide time credit for early release as well. 

The specific programs available to you depend on where your criminal charges are being handled. Federal programs are open to anyone who may face time in federal prison. If you face state or county charges, you will only have access to the programs available in that prison system. Below, we’ve outlined some of these options and how to find out more about first offender opportunities in your area. 

Federal First Offender Programs

The federal government has two unique programs that allow first offenders to avoid jail time. They promote rehabilitation rather than punishment. 

The Federal First Offender Act (FFOA) is a diversion and probation program targeted at people convicted of possession of a controlled substance. Under the FFOA, eligible individuals can be placed on probation for a year instead of going to jail. At the end of probation, their charge can be dismissed, and the case and arrest may also be expunged. This program not only allows for the possibility of no jail time, but can help you escape the possibility of having a criminal record for your entire life.

You may be eligible for FFOA probation if:

  • You have been found guilty of simple possession of a controlled substance 
  • You’ve never been previously convicted of crimes related to a controlled substance – state or federal
  • You haven’t been offered “first offender” treatment under any other laws

The other federal option for first offenders is the Bureau Rehabilitation and Values Enhancement (BRAVE) initiative. This is an educational and therapeutic course for young men in medium security facilities who have not been incarcerated before. The six-month program is designed to help inmates adjust to their situation and prepare for the future. Under the First Step Act, BRAVE may also provide time credit toward early release.

You may be eligible for BRAVE if:

  • You’re a man younger than 32
  • You’ve never been in federal prison before
  • Your sentence has not yet begun

State Diversion Programs

Beyond federal options, there are a variety of state and county programs that divert convicted people from prison through probation and education. These initiatives often cover drug offenses and other non-violent crimes such as theft and prostitution. For example, the New York Division of Probation and Correctional Alternatives (DPCA) funds Probation Eligible Diversion (PED) programs around the state to offer probation to non-violent, first-time offenders. 

The specific options available to you depend on the district in which you will be sentenced. You can work with your lawyer and your sentencing advocate to find similar options available to you. If you discover that you may be eligible, you can work with your team to request that you be sentenced to probation instead of prison. 

Get Help With Sentencing as a First-Time Offender

If you’re eligible for a first offender program, you could significantly reduce your sentence and potentially avoid time in prison. However, these programs carry strict eligibility requirements, and some require you to start preparing before you’ve even been convicted. 

That’s why you need to get help. The expert mitigation specialist and sentencing advocate at Liberty Advisors can prepare you for sentencing by helping you draft a Pre-Sentencing Report (PSR) that demonstrates your eligibility for the relevant first offender program. We will support you during this difficult time, advocate for you as a first-time offender, and work to mitigate your final sentence. Schedule your consultation today to learn more. 


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