HOUSTON – KPRC 2 Investigates reviewed thousands of felony cases where a probationer was “unsatisfactorily” terminated from their probation. The term is a point of debate between victims’ rights advocates and Harris County judges seeking to strike a balance between justice and punishment.
According to data obtained from the Harris County District Clerk’s Office, there have been 7,133 cases of unsatisfactory termination of probation cases filed over the last ten years across the 22 felony courts. Below is a breakdown of so-called ‘unsat’ rulings by each court since 2010. The cases involved in these rulings range from drug possession to robbery to domestic violence.
What does ‘unsat’ mean?
Unsatisfactory termination means a person is released from probation even though they didn’t fulfill all the court-ordered requirements. Ultimately, a judge has the authority to make that decision.
“It’s kind of a Hail-Mary defense attorneys ask for,” said veteran defense attorney and former prosecutor Murray Newman.
Newman explained why a judge may choose this route with a probationer who has not met all obligations.
“Prison is not the appropriate remedy and letting someone go unscathed with nothing on their record is also not an appropriate remedy,” said Newman. “The baseline that you’re looking for is, did the probation accomplish what the judge wanted the probation to accomplish?”
KPRC 2 legal analyst Brian Wice said this disposition should be only be given after careful consideration of a probationer’s actions.
“It means those cases are reserved for unique situations and defendants who somehow merit that type of disposition,” said Wice.
Victims' advocates say it sends the wrong message
While a person is released from the constraints of probation, Wice and Newman said that designation can potentially prevent someone from receiving probation again if charged with a new crime. Victims' rights advocates argue it still sends the wrong message.
“The way I would phrase it is you’re rewarded for being a failure,” said Andy Kahan, director of victim services and advocacy for Houston Crime Stoppers. “I can’t see how that’s a positive, I can’t see how that’s an advantage in regards to public safety.”
Kahan points to cases like last May’s fatal crash involving Jose Talamantes. The 62-year-old is accused of driving drunk and crashing into 29-year-old Abdimalik Maigag’s car and killing him. Court records show Talamantes had two prior DWI cases on his record and the most recent one ended with unsatisfactory termination of probation. Court records show the second DWI was in 2014. Talamantes pleaded guilty and was given two years probation. Court documents read Talamantes later tested positive for alcohol, was ticketed for driving with a suspended license and failed to pay court-ordered fees. A motion to revoke his probation was filed. Court records show he was brought back to jail twice, had his “SOBER court conditions amended” and given an extra day in jail as punishment. The motion to revoke his probation was dismissed in 2015 and his probation was unsatisfactorily terminated in 2016. No specific reason was listed for the “unsat” in the court records. Talamantes is now charged with murder and failing to stop and render aid.
What do court records show?
When KPRC 2 Investigates reviewed the court files in these cases we saw some probationers couldn’t meet financial requirements, complete rehabilitation or committed new crimes. One file showed a man charged with felony marijuana possession in 1997 was given an “unsat” in 2018 because no one could find him.
“Warrants division has been looking for this defendant since 1997," the court document read. "State requested the court unsat term this very old State Jail deferred for judicial economy.”
Many cases, however, gave no specific reason for the ruling.
Judge Chris Morton of the 230th District Court said the law does not require judges to give specific reasons for granting an “unsat.”
“What we really want out of our probationers is to give them the tools to operate within our society without committing future crimes,” Morton said.
However, Morton said this type of decision is made after discussions with prosecutors, defense attorneys and the defendant’s probation officer.
“It’s not always on the record," Morton said. "It’s rarely on the record unless there’s a hearing and we will determine what is appropriate. Typically what that means is they didn’t meet the letter of their probation but there was no substantial reason to move forward.”
Morton could not discuss specific cases but said, in his experience, many “unsats” are due to probationers falling behind on fees or paying restitution.
Judge says its a balancing act
Morton said he wants his probationers to focus on the more rehabilitative aspects of their sentences.
“If they fail due to financial reasons, that’s not necessarily something that’s their fault,” said Morton. “There has to be some equality along a socio-economic spectrum.”
“You definitely disagree unsatisfactory termination is giving a criminal a pass?” asked KPRC 2 investigative reporter Robert Arnold.
“Absolutely," Morton replied. "There is no pass.”
Morton said he takes the importance of fees and restitution as a condition of probation seriously, but, “at some point, you can’t get blood from a stone.”
Morton said COVID-19 has also made it more difficult for probationers to find employment or complete community service requirements.
“Social-distancing and other factors of shutting down facilities where they would normally go in and do community service, they’re not able to make those hours,” said Morton. “With probations now, I don’t put community service hours as a requirement for the completion.”
“How do you compensate for that then?” asked Arnold.
“There’s not much we can do," Morton answered. "I go ahead and waive those hours at this point. If they don’t have the option of doing (community service) I’m not going to hold that over their head or extend them.”
No one from the District Attorney’s Office would speak with KPRC 2 on-camera about “unsats.”
“It’s principally up to the judges in their wisdom to make such determinations,” a written statement from the DA’s Office read.
'We couldn’t do anything’: Victims feel process lacks justice
For victims, this is a process that can leave them feeling hollow for many years after a crime is committed.
“It’s hard,” said Tonya Hardin. “Even though he was killed in ’98, the memories are like it happened yesterday.”
Court records read Hardin’s brother, Steven, was killed in 1998 while attempting to tow Barry Crawford’s car. A jury convicted Crawford of murder and sentenced him to 10 years probation.
Hardin and Kahan eventually were successful in getting the state legislature to pass a law that probation is no longer an allowable punishment in first-degree murder cases. However, in 2010 Crawford’s probation was terminated unsatisfactorily.
“There was no recourse whatsoever," Hardin said. "We couldn’t do anything. He didn’t go to prison.”
Hardin said the family initially took some comfort that, even though the jury gave Crawford probation, the judge tacked on numerous conditions.
“He was supposed to pay child support for my brother’s two kids. He was supposed to pay a memorial fund for my mom for 10 years. He was supposed to reimburse for funeral expenses,” Hardin said were just some of the conditions of Crawford’s probation.
Hardin said Crawford only paid a fraction of what was required and found ways to avoid completing other requirements. Famed Judge Ted Poe presided over the original case but was later elected to Congress. Court records show a second judge tried to get Crawford to comply with all conditions, before voluntarily recusing himself from the case. A third judge granted the “unsat.”
"Unsatisfactory termination due to illness related prohibitions affecting ability to make restitution payments,” court documents read.
“If you’re not going to hold them accountable then why even bother wasting your time, or the county’s time putting it on a piece of paper?” asked Hardin.
Kahan said he is now talking with lawmakers about the possibility of drafting legislation that would place more parameters on when an “unsat” can be granted.
Newman argues “unsats” are a complicated area of the law and each case is unique.
“It’s definitely not something that lends itself to a cookie-cutter explanation," Newman said. "There’s not going to be a stat, a statistic that just says, ‘Hey, this is why we did that.’”