ABILENE, Texas -- For some, not finishing a college degree might mean more difficulty in landing a job.
For one Abilene man, not graduating could mean up to 20 years in prison.
But John Joseph Dunn has plans that go beyond simply finishing a bachelor's degree.
On Wednesday, Dunn, 21, was given eight years of deferred adjudication probation in a plea agreement in a 2009 burglary offense.
According to court documents, Dunn pleaded guilty to stealing a TV from a woman's house in August 2009.
The court order signed by 350th District Judge Thomas Wheeler -- which won't become final for 30 days, pending review -- includes the usual provisions about avoiding drugs and alcohol and "places of disreputable and harmful character."
But on the last page of the four-page document, after the section that stipulates 240 hours of community service, a $2,000 fine along with court and supervision fees, are some unusual conditions:
Dunn must enroll in an accredited university in Abilene by September, must maintain a 2.0 grade-point average as a full-time student and must graduate with a bachelor's degree by September 2018.
In addition to passing regular drug tests, Dunn will have to pass English and history tests, and give copies of his transcripts to his probation officer.
Joe Burkett, Taylor County assistant district attorney, said that in any plea agreement, there are variables to consider.
"In this case, there were some unique circumstances that led us to believe this would be an appropriate agreement," Burkett said. "This is not a freebie, not a free pass by any means."
In a deferred adjudication situation, unlike straight probation, Burkett said, if a probationer violates terms of his probation, he is open to the full range of punishment. Dunn's burglary offense is a second-degree felony, meaning if he violates the conditions of the agreement, he could face up to 20 years in prison.
Hours after being released from the Taylor County Jail on Thursday -- after 14 months of incarceration in various facilities -- Dunn said he was very happy the deal had been struck, even after some initial reservations.
"To be honest, when I first heard all the stipulations, I was a little scared. There's a lot to do," Dunn said Thursday night. "But then I realized just how much support I have around me. I have a lot of help to get from Point A to the end."
"I'm going to complete (the probation period)," Dunn said. "It's no longer a question in my mind."
Dunn said he plans to, at first, pursue a bachelor's degree in ministry, and then get a law degree and pursue a possible career as a criminal defense attorney.
Burkett said the agreement was reached after lengthy negotiations with defense counsel, and after consultation with law-enforcement representatives. It's not an agreement he's likely to sign off on again, he said.
District Attorney James Eidson said the prosecutors in his office do have some discretion in negotiating plea deals, and sometimes creative solutions are preferable to incarceration.
"Basically you're looking for ways to make changes in people's lives. Sometimes that's by embarrassment, sometimes it's by forcing positive changes, like getting someone to quit smoking, or to go to school," Eidson said.
(Contact Greg Kendall-Ball of The Abilene Reporter-News in Texas at Kendall-BallG@reporternews.com.)