Go Directly to Jail

Being on probation is, by design, supposed to be a pain in the ass.
After all, you have admitted to or been found guilty of committing an offense against the peace and dignity of the great state of Texas. You have nevertheless avoided the outcome you most desperately wanted to avoid: incarceration in the state prison system.

There's no reason for the state to make it easy for you, though. You may have to do some local jail time. You may end up in boot camp or a lock-down drug-treatment facility. At the very least you're going to have to report periodically to a probation officer, probably pee in a jar for a drug test every month or so and abide by any of a limitless variety of judge-mandated conditions, anything from such noble community service as picking up roadside trash to avoiding contact with your best friends.

But you probably shouldn't be forced to deal with a bureaucrat who is supposed to simply provide information to the court but who instead, according to defendants, defense attorneys and even some prosecutors, wants to do nothing but put you in prison.

You shouldn't have to deal with Terry Hunt.

Hunt is the probation officer in Judge Mike McSpadden's 209th District Court, and has been for close to ten years. Formally known as a court liaison officer (CLO), Hunt's job is to process people who have just been found guilty or put on deferred adjudication, providing information to prosecutors and defense attorneys about what programs are available.

He also acts as the contact person with the probation officer in the field. The field officer is the man or woman who meets regularly with the probationer and makes sure whatever conditions the judge has set are being met.

If the probationer slips up, the CLO is the one who decides if the slip is enough to bring to the judge's attention; the judge decides if the probationer should be formally admonished, or have the conditions tightened, or even get a little "jail therapy" by being incarcerated for a week or so while waiting for a hearing that eventually results in nothing more than a warning.

"I expect them to be my eyes and ears in the probation department," says 174th District Judge George Godwin, who also serves as administrative judge over the county's 22 criminal district courts. "They should be neutral; they should just be relaying information and not setting policy."

Godwin, speaking generally, and not specifically about Hunt, says CLOs should be objective, simply following guidelines set by the judge. For instance, a judge may tell his or her CLO that a probationer who fails two drug tests in a row needs to be brought in; one failure isn't enough to require a court appearance.

But in the real world, with heavy caseloads, with probation conditions that can be more subjective to evaluate than a pass-fail drug test, CLOs can have impressive discretion.

In almost all of the district courts, that's not a problem. "Usually they are pretty easy to deal with; they'll let you read the file, and if you have problems and want to know what programs are available for someone, they'll tell you," says one prosecutor.

"But I was very uncomfortable in that court [with Hunt]," says the prosecutor, who wishes to remain anonymous. "I don't know if he's a wanna-be prosecutor and never got to be one, but basically he thought that everyone should be in prison, and hey, I'm a prosecutor, and even I know that that isn't true."

The parents of one defendant say they observed Hunt during a dozen trips they made to the 209th, waiting for hours each time for a hearing to be reset. "You're there two or three hours, and you sit and watch the D.A.'s and the court-appointed lawyers asking Hunt, 'What can we do with this one? What's available?' All he would repeat was, 'Send them to TDC, send them to TDC,' " Esther Smith says, using the former acronym for the state prison system. "He never volunteered anything that would let people know there were drug-rehabilitation programs available."

Hunt, according to lawyers, prosecutors and families who deal with him, can be a charming, helpful guy. He can also be a bullying despot, yelling at prosecutors he thinks are being too lenient, lying about the availability of programs that might keep someone out of prison, producing mistake-filled investigative reports that could convince a judge not to offer probation, and treating those unfortunate enough to come under his province "like they were dirt."

Leaning back in his high-backed chair on the side of the 209th's large courtroom, a glum-looking multiracial group of handcuffed and jail-uniformed defendants behind him, Hunt looks like a caricature of a portly backwoods sheriff.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Richard Connelly
Contact: Richard Connelly