A lot of young people do a lot of stupid things that they wouldn’t do if they weren’t so young and immature. I, for one, refuse to be held responsible for the dumb things I did before about age 23. And the neurological research backs up my observations – the frontal lobes, the parts of the brain in charge of decision making and impulse control – aren’t fully developed until your early to mid-twenties.
While most of us do dumb things at that age that is simply embarrassing to talk about, a lot of us do inadvertently life changing things. A lot of those things have to do with experimentation with drugs. Leaving aside the physical damage drugs can do to your body, the ramifications of a drug conviction can leave you unemployable, unable to join the military, ineligible for financial aid, and a host of other consequences that seem, in some instances, to be disproportionate to your self-harming behavior at one idiotic night at a party.
And so, the law has recognized that. In Georgia, the law allows for ‘alternative punishment’ for certain low level drug offenses. If a person doesn’t have any prior convictions, O.C.G.A. 16-13-2(a) says that if that person “pleads guilty to or is found guilty of possession of a narcotic drug, marijuana, or stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogenic drug, the court may without entering a judgment of guilt and with the consent of such person defer further proceedings and place him on probation upon such reasonable terms and conditions as the court may require, preferably terms which require the person to undergo a comprehensive rehabilitation program, including, if necessary medical treatment, not to exceed three years, designed to acquaint him with the ill effects of drug abuse and to provide him with knowledge of the gains and benefits which can be achieved by being a good member of society.”
In simpler language, this means if you are a first time drug offender, and your offense is the possession of drugs (not selling them), the judge can, with your consent, put you on super-double-secret probation and make you take classes or go to rehab. If you are successful, you are never convicted, and so you can honestly check “no” in the box on an employment application that asks you if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime. Even though you’ve been on probation for up to three years. In fact, the code section specifically says “[d]ischarge and dismissal under this Code section may not be used to disqualify a person in any application for employment or appointment to office in either the public or private sector.” If you are unsuccessful with what the judge asked you do to, the judge gets a do-over and can enter a formal conviction, and everything counts against you.
Subsection (c) of the same law also allows people who are charged with “non-violent property crimes” that are related to the addiction issues of the accused to take advantage of this law. In other words, if you smashed a mailbox because you were drunk, or if you stole your friend’s iPhone to sell to get drug money, you might be able to take advantage of this law.
There are large debates in the legal community about the purpose of punishment through the Courts. Is the purpose to rehabilitate the offender? Or to get retribution on the offender for the wrongs he or she has done society? Are we teaching and redirecting, or are we collecting our eye for the eye taken? Whatever your personal philosophy, the legislature has recognized that people drug and substance abuse issues can be reached and taught the error of their ways, so to speak. And, since we all as a society benefit from sober, functional co-members of society, anything that can help people achieve that status is a good thing.
Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes only. No lawyer can advise you about your case without hearing the details of your particular, unique situation.