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Terms like diversion, or first-time offender’s programs, are thrown around a lot when an individual is facing criminal charges, misdemeanor or felony.

The purpose of a diversion program is to save an individual from having a criminal conviction follow them around where it will undoubtedly interfere with education, employment, housing, and relationships.

So what does it mean?

While programs are different from court to court and county to county, typically in a diversion program, an individual enters a guilty plea to what he or she has been charged with, and he or she is then diverted to counseling, or some sort of programming or activity. After a specified amount of time, typically 6 months to 1 year, the case is dismissed and sealed, saving the individual from having the criminal conviction. An important note is eligibility: not every offense is eligible, and not every individual is eligible. A lawyer can help you determine eligibility.

Clients often ask why they have to enter a guilty plea to enter the program, and so instead of just saying, “because that’s just how it is,” the explanation I give clients is that diversion programs are all about accountability, and really, a carrot and a stick. The carrot is having the case dismissed and sealed, the stick is having to enter a guilty plea, and having to do what the court orders: drug tests, drug counseling, community service, alcohol or theft awareness class, fines, etc. But you do all that because you want the carrot.

Because visuals are often helpful, I will provide one here. Picture a shelf (really, stop and picture a shelf) In a diversion situation, the guilty plea gets placed on the shelf—even though an individual has entered a guilty plea, the judge doesn’t find him or her guilty–it’s on the shelf—and so long as the diversion program requirements are met, the guilty plea just dissolves on the shelf–it goes away, the case gets dismissed and sealed. The problem is when individuals don’t follow the diversion program—the guilty plea comes off the shelf, the individual is found guilty, has a criminal conviction, and can be sentenced–possibly to jail.

Diversion programs can be a great opportunity for individuals who have never found themselves charged with a criminal offense, and while there are some requirements, it is well worth it compared to having a criminal conviction. But diversion programs are a privilege, and each court has its own policy, so it is best to speak with a lawyer about your particular charge,the jurisdiction or court you have been charged in, and your eligibility. It will increase your chances of the best possible outcome–which just may be diversion.