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PRETRIAL DIVERSION

'Turning young lives around'

Program helps offenders avoid felony convictions
BY MIKE JONES
AMERICAN PRESS

LACASSINE - The Academy of Training Skills - a pilot program in pretrial diversion - has opened in its doors with initial space for 200 residents.
Lee Mallett is president and Johnny Smith is director.
According to Lee Mallett, the academy was built and is run and maintained with private funding.
"No taxpayer money is used," he said.
Director Johnny Smith said the facility gives an alternative to nonviolent, nonsexual male offenders who can turn their lives around before going through the judicial system and getting a felony conviction record.
"It fills a gap between probation and traditional Department of Corrections incarceration," Smith said. Candidates for the academy are screened by authorities, but have not been convicted of a crime.
Smith said inclusion in the program is up to district attorneys and judges.
Mallett said each resident pays for his room and board and courtordered expenses, such as child-support payments.
The resident can also have his own savings account, which the DOC oversees. The Academy has a fulltime accountant to keep complete records on the individuals and operation.
Residents are provided clothing, meals and basic medical care, but "they have to work," Smith said.
The pilot program has the approval of the DOC, and American Correction Association accreditation is being sought, Mallett said.
People who have had multiple DWIs, drug arrests and "deadbeat dads" are among the offenders who may be likely to benefit from the program, Smith said.
"Men sitting in jail for second- and third-offense DWI are very good workers but need supervision," Smith said.
Mallett said the participants are "very closely supervised" and there is a state-ofthe-art security system to track them through their daily routines and in the dormitories at the academy at night.
He said participants are tested daily for alcohol consumption and weekly for drugs.
Smith, a former administrator at the DOC, said the academy's staff has more than 80 years of experience in law enforcement.
Mallett said the program is all about "turning young lives around before it is too late."
"We want to show them there is another world out there," he said.
Residents can opt out and go back into the regular judicial system, Mallett said.
He added the work aspect is emphasized and employers know they will be getting an employee who is drug-free, alcohol-free, shows up to work on time, has a neat and uniformed appearance and is respectful. An academy bus takes them to their workplaces and picks them up at the end of the day.
Mallett said a resident who is disrespectful to his employer will be picked up and counseled.
"I want the employer to want to keep them after they get out of the program," Mallett said.
He said the academy tries to get each participant a commercial driver's license and training in a skill they may be interested in and qualified for, such as welding or electronics.
Mallett said academy officials are going to build a trade school at the site. It will be open to everyone wanting to learn a skill, not just participants of the program.
Another important part of the program is counseling and behavior modification.
Smith said there is an extensive jail ministry and plans for building a chapel on the academy grounds.
The Southwest Louisiana AIDS Council will give prevention counseling as well as free testing, he said.
There will also be drug- and alcohol-abuse counseling, anger management and relationship counseling, he said.
Mallett said one of his goals is to reduce the recidivism rate among offenders. He said in the regular correctional system, recidivism can be over 80 percent. He said he believes it can be brought down to a very low level by such programs as the academy.
"If you have a felony record, it is twice as hard to get a job," he said. But by helping offenders turn their lives around before that happens, it will help the judicial system and society as a whole, he said.
Mallett said he plans to expand the academy in Lacassine to eventually accommodate 1,000 residents.
He would also like to expand the program into five other areas of Louisiana, and then nationally.

BRAD PUCKETT / AMERICAN PRESS
Nonviolent, nonsexual offenders can avoid trials by paying for room and board at the Academy of Training Skills in Lacassine. The center tries to give each participant a commercial driver's license and work-force skills.

BRAD PUCKETT / AMERICAN PRESS
Director Johnny Smith monitors the Academy of Training Skills using a system that tracks residents day and night. Nonviolent offenders who stay at the facility must also undergo daily alchohol tests and weekly drug screenings.


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