A petty theft conviction should be avoided at all costs. Petty theft is a crime of dishonesty and can have long lasting effects on your son including disqualifying him from future employment opportunities and the denial of most professional licenses. It's important that you make every effort to keep a theft-related conviction off of his record.
That being said, my suggestion would be to hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer familiar with the court in which your son's case is being filed. This will only serve to maximize his chances of avoiding a petty theft conviction and keeping his record clean.
It seems as though your son is a good person who made a mistake. Fortunately, this along with the fact that he has no prior criminal record should go a long way in making sure this stays off his record.
Also, depending on the amount of the alleged theft, your son may be able to get an infraction pursuant to Penal Code Section 490.1 (theft under $50 value). Whatever options are available to your son will be best served by a criminal defense lawyer. Do everything you can to hire one for him.
I hope this answer was helpful.
As far as your son's record is concerned, if he is convicted of a petty theft it will be on his record. Since theft is a crime of dishonesty, the record may have long term negative consequences to him in the future, for example, when applying for a job after he finishes college. Obviously, employers are less likely to hire someone who they percieve as being dishonest. So, a petty theft conviction should be avoided if at all possible.
Assuming you son allegedly committed a theft from a store, depending on the store, it may be possible to negotiate a "civil compromise." A civil compromise allows the parties to resolve a criminal matter as if it were a civil matter. The huge benefit is that the accused does not suffer a criminal conviction. Victims, prosecutors, and courts are not always willing to go along with civil compromises,but this is an option your son's lawyer may want to explore.
I agree with the previous poster that your son's lawyer may be able to negotiate a reduction of the charge to an infraction, which is on the level of a traffic ticket in terms of severity. If a civil compromise is unavailable, an infraction would be the next best alternative.
This answer assumes that your son is guilty. The first thing your son's attorney will want to do is discuss the facts of the case with him and review any police or security reports to determine if your son has any viable defenses. If the prosecutor's case has problems, you son may either beat the case altogether or be in a better position to negotiate a favorable outcome.
There are many excellent public defenders, but they typically carry very heavy case loads, So they may not have the time to expolre creative options for your son. It would be worth consulting with an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Most do not charge for a consultation.
To answer your question directly, no, you don't need to hire an expensive private attorney. Please keep in mind that you can spend a lot of money on a private attorney and get a lousy one, just like you can get a lousy public defender attorney. Be careful, and shop around, a lot. Many private attorneys will provide an initial consultation for free.
Many of the public defenders are terrific lawyers who will do a terrific job for your son, if he's indigent and qualifies for their services. Some private attorneys, who know what they're doing, can also do a great job for your son.
A petty theft conviction is very serious and can have serious repercussions for a long time. But, there are many possible defenses to petty theft, and many ways around a conviction. The case should be fought if at all possible.
Spending large sums of money does not guaruntee a great attorney. If you have limited funds you can go to his first court date and see if he qualifies for a public defender. Then have the public defender look at the case and get his evaluation. If you are unhappy with his assesment you can hire a private attorney at that point. Some of the best attoneys are public defenders and a lot of the best private attorneys started as public defenders.
This charge can have a lasting impact on your son, but there are some options to avoid this ruining his future. He can plead to different charges, get a deferred entry of Judgement, or win at trial to name a few. An attorney looking at the specific facts of the case will know what options will work best with your son's case.
The Office of the Public Defender provides excellent representation but only for those matters that have already proceeded to court. A private attorney is in a position to work on the case before the first court date. You should consult with a private criminal defense attorney to determine exactly what work, if any, is necessary to possibly improve your son's legal situation in the event charges are filed.