A program to keep Lafayette kids out of jail is in the works — here’s what it could look like

Man in a blue shirt leans on a wooden railing outisde
Johnathon Palacios stands on the walkway leading up to the door of the family’s trailer in Lake Charles, La., on Monday April 14, 2024.. Photo by Alena Maschke

 Johnathon Palacios wanted to build a bond with his teenage son, something he felt he missed as a young father. He wasn’t around much when 15-year-old Joh’von was a child, and he tried to make up for lost time. But when Joh’von got in trouble for vaping in the bathroom before a high school basketball game, Palacios realized that their relationship still needed work — and he had trouble guiding his son onto the right path.

“I couldn’t get through to him,” Palacios said. Then, a few months later, he got a call from the Multi-Agency Resource Center, asking him and his son to come in for a meeting.

Palacios was ready to fight whatever further disciplinary action his son would face in court — he had already been taken off the basketball team and placed in an alternative school. But the MARC offered them a different path: regular drug tests and a mentor to help put him back on track.

Launched in 2011, the MARC is housed in an inconspicuous one-story building on the juvenile justice campus in Lake Charles, wedged between the road and a juvenile detention center.

The concept is simple: Rather than detain kids who get caught with drugs or get into fights, the MARC offers connections to services that can help them and their families get back on track — and keep them out of the court system. The model has shown promise in the Lake Charles area, and a similar concept is in the works for Lafayette.

Photo of a sign
The M.A.R.C. in Lake Charles opened its doors on Pithon St in 2011, a sign marks the entrance to the parking lot on Monday, April 8, 2024.

Detection instead of detention

“We’re screening to figure out what’s going on,” Calcasieu Parish Office of Juvenile Justice Director Anthony Celestine said of the MARC’s intake process. After that, they are either placed in an informal probation program at the MARC, connected to other community resources, or both.

Over the past 13 years, Celestine said the center has earned a reputation as a first point of contact for schools and law enforcement when dealing with what he calls “light touch” cases that would have traditionally been handled by the juvenile justice system.

“There’s a big reliance on the MARC from the community,” Celestine said. “There’s trust there.”

The data supports that. Detention admissions in 2023 were less than half what they were in 2017, the halfway point between the center’s opening and today. Voluntary referrals to the MARC’s services more than quadrupled in that timeframe. As of today, the MARC has served 16,636 families, amounting to almost as many court diversions.

For Palacios, that call from the MARC came as a blessing in disguise. At first, he didn’t see why his son should have to go through even more interventions over the vaping incident. But after a few months — and a few failed drug tests – he noticed a change in his son.

“These kids, it’s so crazy, they will take more direction — and better — from a complete stranger than their parents,” he said. And while the center provides a less institutional environment — there’s no uniformed officers or cells, but counselors and couches instead — the informal probation at the MARC made his son realize that the situation was serious, Palacios said. “It puts that little fear in ‘em,” he added.

Bringing back successes

A concept similar to the Calcasieu Parish MARC might soon be coming to Lafayette. At a recent community meeting, staff of the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice shared plans to bring a facility inspired by the Lake Charles center to Lafayette Parish, coined LaMARC.

“The LaMARC will serve as a centralized point of contact for all youth and their families who interact (or are at risk of interaction) with the juvenile justice system,” the document said. “It will also aim to expand alternatives to formal court processing and secure confinement and increase access to evidence-based services for youth and families.”

One of the goals of the LaMARC will be to “divert as many youth as possible, consistent with public safety, from entering or going deeper into the juvenile justice system,” according to the documents. Other goals include saving law enforcement time by offering a single point of contact for justice-involved youth, reduce the use of school suspensions and improve 

OJJ staff said that the office wasn’t ready to comment on the plans yet, but documents obtained by The Advocate/The Current detail plans to offer youth and family assessment services and trauma-informed programming, among other services.

Operating between 2013 and 2019, Lafayette had a similar center, the Juvenile Assessment Center or JAC, housed inside the juvenile detention facility. In 2019, Sheriff Mark Garber announced the center would cease operations due to insufficient funding, part of an ongoing struggle over money between the sheriff’s office and Lafayette Consolidated Government.

According to OJJ, its plans are an effort to “bring the success of the original JAC back to Lafayette Parish.”

For LaMARC, LCG will be providing the building — the War Memorial Building at 2100 Jefferson Street — as well as maintenance and repair services, payment of the utilities, and janitorial services, according to Chief of Staff Christina Dayries.

Young offenders in focus once again

The plans come as Louisiana has pivoted toward harsher punishments for young offenders. 

Earlier this year, the Legislature, under the leadership of Gov. Jeff Landry, voted to reverse the 2016 “Raise the Age” reforms and return to treating 17-year-olds charged with crimes as adults, a change that law enforcement officials anticipate will lead to new capacity challenges in jails. 

In Calcasieu, staff at the parish juvenile justice office hope to catch young people who run into trouble before they become or are considered adults with charges in the legal system. 

“If they send that child here informally, without charging them, then we can still work with them voluntarily,” Celestine said of the agencies the MARC partners with locally. “We’re giving the child an opportunity to work informally, that probably doesn’t really need the formal court system.”

According to the documents, the Lafayette center would serve any young person in the parish between the ages of 10-17, as long as they have not committed a “serious crime” or are considered a danger to the community.

The Office of Juvenile Justice has committed to providing four staff members for the operation of the LaMARC, but said more staff, including a mental health professional and additional caseworkers would be needed.

To start, the center would operate on an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. The goal is to start operations in June, but OJJ is still searching for funding and community partners, according to documents reviewed by The Advocate/The Current.