A first offender is a person who is convicted of a crime for the first time. First offenders may be juveniles or adults, and may have committed a misdemeanor or a felony. Depending on the type of crime, first offenders may be permitted to enter diversionary programs instead of serving jail time, in the hope that a criminal future can be avoided. Sentencing guidelines are sometimes more lenient for first time criminal offenders.
A person is deemed a first offender only if he or she has never been convicted of a crime before. Those who have been arrested but released, or those who have been tried but acquitted of other crimes are not considered offenders. Only a first conviction can qualify a person for first offender status, though a judge or jury may take into consideration a long history of arrests, infractions, or other run-ins with the law when determining whether a person should receive leniency as a first offender.
The treatment of first offenders is seen as an important part of crime management and reduction. In general, these are people for whom crime is not yet a habitual part of existence. Many first time offenders are convicted of relatively minor offenses, such as shoplifting or driving under the influence. It is often in the interest of the court and the state to ensure that the criminal lifestyle does not become a habit for a first offender, rather than ensuring they are punished to the maximum limit of the law.
For first offenders convicted of driving under the influence or public intoxication, rehabilitation programs may be offered as an alternative to jail. This is to help offenders who are clearly struggling with substance abuse problems manage the root cause of their crime rather than simply pay fines or go to jail for a short period. By treating the root cause, the justice system hopes to avoid a pattern of continuing illegal behavior based on addiction. Similar diversionary programs are sometimes available for first offenders who are minors.
Non-violent first offenders may sometimes be able to have their crimes expunged if they pursue an active program of lawful behavior. In 2009, the US House of Representatives began studies on the Second Chance Act, which would permit records to be expunged for first time offenders who complete substance abuse programs, receive a high school diploma, and perform a year of community service. Removing the stigma of a conviction is believed by some to help former convicts break ties with their past and pursue a lawful future.
Generally, a first offender is only eligible for lenient or diversionary treatment if the crime committed is non-violent. A person who commits a violent crime is generally considered to be a threat to society, thus making their rehabilitation less important to the criminal justice system than the protection of the public. Even with a violent criminal conviction, a first offender may be more likely to receive early parole or be granted access to treatment programs while incarcerated than a repeat offender with a long history of criminal activity.