Go Directly to Jail

Probation officer Terry Hunt thinks prison is the best answer for every offender

Speed-reading through the formulaic conditions of a standard deferred-adjudication agreement, he adds his own personal flourish to a 22-year-old who has been caught with drugs: "It's just like it says in the Monopoly game: If you don't follow these conditions, you will go to jail, you will go directly to jail, you will not pass Go, and you will not collect $200."

Such macho posing isn't unique among criminal-justice-system drones who work next to, but are not really teammates of, real-life tough guys like cops and sheriff's deputies. But CLOs in the county's other courts, attorneys say, don't see themselves as Dirty Harrys.

Incivility is no crime, of course, and the person whose house was robbed or car was stolen is not likely to have much sympathy when the guy who did it has to put up with a mean ol' probation officer.

But there are people out there who claim that because of Hunt's incompetence, or his vindictiveness, they have had their freedom taken away.

Jake Smith is a 19-year-old from an unincorporated area near Channelview who, according to his mother, "doesn't need any help messing himself up."

His mother, Esther, is a church-going, adamant Republican who's perplexed at the wrong turns her son has made. He has run away from home several times and started in on marijuana when he was 13.

A year or so later, his parents had him arrested for smoking pot. "We warned him and warned him," Smith says. "We knew he was headed for the adult [criminal-justice] system, so we wanted him to see what the juvenile system was like. We tried private schools, we tried sending him to my brother in Colorado, we tried putting him in hospitals and programs, but he's just hell-bent on doing what he wants to do.

"He sounds like a terrible kid, but he really just got hooked on marijuana at 13 and didn't believe it was a gateway drug. He just climbed the ladder to other drugs."

In August 1997 Jake was arrested during a theater production at Lakewood Church for cocaine possession.

"We had to drag him along with us, and there was a wooded area outside, and there's always lots of police around, and he just was walking around with his headphones on and didn't hear the police, and he had this little thing of cocaine with him," she says. "He's not hooked on cocaine, but he was using it."

Jake was sentenced to deferred adjudication in January 1998. Under deferred adjudication, a judge finds there is enough evidence to convict a person, but no ruling is made. The defendant must follow probationlike conditions for a period set by the judge -- maybe three years, maybe five -- and if there are no significant violations, at the end of the period the charges are dismissed.

If the defendant messes up badly enough, the judge enters a ruling and, more often than not, sends the guy on to prison. There's almost no chance of appealing such a decision -- you generally can't ask a higher court to rule that you're innocent of the probation violation you're alleged to have done -- so deferred adjudication is a powerful weapon.

Jake didn't take long to find out. In March, just three months after being sentenced, he was charged with LSD possession.

He spent a month in jail before McSpadden set a bond, then was released pending a hearing on just what his punishment would be.

Esther Smith can sound like she's incredibly naive or deeply in denial about her son's problem, and as white suburbanites she and her husband are likely candidates to be shocked and offended by perceived callous treatment by the criminal-justice system.

But she says she has no problems with the judges, the prosecutors or anyone else involved in her son's case or his juvenile-justice experience.

"Sometimes they're hard-nosed about following the rules, but their job is to make sure the public is not endangered, and I understand that," she says. "But Terry Hunt just wants to put people away.... I just feel that Terry Hunt is getting a bed ready for my son at TDC."

It's only Hunt who has angered her, and her lawyer, veteran criminal-defense attorney David Jones, says he couldn't believe Hunt's actions in the case.

Some of it was just the attitude, she says. "His attitude really stunk -- he treats all these young boys like they're the scum of the earth," she says. "It's not just that it involved my son, it's just that he's this pompous, full-of-myself power person."

More importantly, she says, the pre-sentence investigation report Hunt prepared was riddled with errors.

"He said that Jake was thrown out of a private school for fighting. Jake's not very physical, he's kind of passive, so I couldn't believe that. I called the director of the school and asked him whether he had had any call from the probation department or talked to anyone. He said, 'No, and if I had, our records show only that [Jake] withdrew and went into public school,' and that is what happened, and that was our choice."

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