If you are charged with a crime and required to attend court, chances are you will get lots of well-meaning advice from family and friends. However, in this situation it is easy to make things worse for yourself, and there are three critical steps you should take without delay.
Firstly, make sure you know exactly what you have been charged with and what the consequences might be if you are found guilty of the offence. The police will have given you or sent you a document called an “information” (in some jurisdictions this is called a charge-sheet, and may sometimes be accompanied by a summons requiring you to attend court). This document will state what the charge is, but it won’t usually say the penalty or other consequences of being convicted. Even if you have been told the maximum penalty prescribed for the offence, there are sometimes other consequences of being found guilty that are far worse than the prescribed penalty. For example, if you are convicted of a drug possession offence, you might be able to avoid going to jail, but that conviction on your record could mean you are denied entry to many countries around the world. Not a great outcome if you had plans to travel the world! Another example is where a person is charged with indecent assault or child abuse. Even if that criminal charge is dealt with by a fine or community service, it may have lifetime consequences in some jurisdictions if your career or planned career involves working with children. Being convicted of that kind of offence might mean you can never be a foster carer, a teacher, a school counsellor, or even a school janitor (for example). Therefore, a guilty verdict or plea in that situation could lock you out of some career choices forever. You should check this out before entering a guilty plea. Another issue is that sometimes people think a “first offence” rarely results in jail time. While it is true that a first offence may be regarded more leniently, many people do go to jail for first offences. This is especially true for serious drug supply offences, aggravated violence offences, and of course murder. It is therefore a good idea to ask a lawyer about the maximum penalty and other potential consequences of the charge you are facing. In my experience, young adults are particularly at risk of entering a guilty plea if they think they will only have to pay a fine, without considering the potential long-term consequences of having that offence on their criminal record. On many occasions, people in their 40s and 50s have asked for my advice about a problem arising from a conviction they got when they were in their teens or 20s. Sometimes it is possible to find solutions to these kinds of problems, but usually after 20 or 30 years it is just too late. The best time to get the best outcome is at the start when you are first charged. Even where a person is found guilty of an offence, it may be possible to obtain a discharge without conviction – so the offence is not on your record – if the circumstances justify that outcome. Knowing all the possible consequences of a conviction enables you to make the best decisions for your future.