Being charged with a crime is frightening. Will it go on your record, and affect employment and background searches? Will one mistake cost you for the rest of your life, even if it seemed harmless or minor in the spur of the moment?

What is deferred judgment?

One common way to keep your record clean is called deferred judgment (also known as deferred adjudication). Deferred judgment is a form of plea agreement where the accused pleads guilty and undergoes treatment or therapy in lieu of jail time. After a probationary period the charges are dropped and no conviction goes on your record. The arrest will still appear on your record, but an attorney may be able to seal your record from future background checks, depending on the crime.

A deferred judgment will help protect your future, making it easier to find a job, keep your driver’s license, protect custody of your children and, for immigrants, prevent deportation. There are many different types of deferred judgment programs, including anger management, alcohol/drug rehabilitation and treatment.

Who is eligible?

Most of the time, eligible offenders have been charged with a misdemeanor or non-serious crime, such as drug possession, petty theft or minor assault. Deferred judgment probation is typically reserved for first-time offenders and, here in San Francisco, it is common with drug charges.

What’s the catch?

The purpose of the program is to help offenders keep a clean record. Any violation of the terms – having a drink while in treatment or being charged with another assault -not only break the rules, they cancel the program and, in most cases, will result in a more serious sentence. Because deferred judgment requires an admission of guilt, failure to follow the probationary terms increases the severity of the sentence.

Probationary terms are subject to the judge and the skill of your attorney, so it’s important to work closely with a legal professional to guide you through the process. A shoplifting charge, a drug possession or an ill-thought punch, may have felt insignificant in the heat of the moment, but on a permanent record they can limit your future. A good attorney and a willingness to change can keep your record free and your options unlimited.