First offender refers to a person convicted of a legal offense for the first time. First offender is entitled to special privileges in a criminal trial.
A “first offender” program is a way for a defendant to avoid the full effects of a criminal prosecution. It’s a type of diversion, often for those who have no previous criminal record, or at least no felony convictions. (Usually traffic tickets don’t count, but defendants with juvenile offenses may be disqualified). In a typical first-offender program, by completing the program, the defendant keeps a conviction off her record.
Eligibility for first-time-offender programs varies from state to state. Some states may limit program participation to those facing misdemeanor charges, while others may let in those looking at certain felony charges. Commonly, though, first-offender programs are available only where the charges don’t involve a violent or “serious” offense. Many states have first-offender programs for juveniles.
Some states use the “first offender” terminology for programs that aren’t a form of diversion. For example, the law might require that someone convicted of a first DUI enter a “first offender” alcohol treatment program as a condition of punishment, rather than a way to avoid a conviction. Participation in the program is simply part of the sentence. Similar programs may exist for domestic violence cases.
People who have been convicted of or are charged with certain federal drug crimes may be eligible for the federal diversion program, described in the Federal First Offender Act, 18 U.S.C.S. § 3607. To be eligible, the defendant must not have prior state or federal convictions concerning controlled substances. A person can participate in the federal program only one time.
Defendants who enter the program plead guilty or have been found guilty, but their judgment of conviction is not officially “entered” into the record. After a year of probation, if the defendant has completed its terms successfully, the court will dismiss the proceedings without entering the judgment of conviction. But if the defendant violates probation, the case will proceed with the entry of the judgment and sentencing. For successful probationers, the case “shall not be considered a conviction.”