Communities often address crime through a cycle of prison time and release. This cycle leads them back to old habits, separated from their families and a drain on tax payer dollars. That is why The Turning Leaf Project (TLP) exists—to work with individuals who cycle in and out of the criminal justice system in order to provide the structure needed after release from jail.
The TLP was founded by Amy Barch, 36, founder and director, who has had a passion for working with incarcerated folk since her 20s.
“I became very interested in why people commit crimes and how we can effectively respond to that behavior as a community,” Barch said.
When Barch moved to Charleston in 2010 she was unable to find any meaningful volunteer opportunities in the field of reentry and rehabilitation for the incarcerated population. This led to her approaching the jail to teach classes in the evenings a few times a week.
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To an untrained eye, it’s easy to think that Turning Leaf is
just like any other reentry organization. But we’re not. Okay, you might be
thinking, “Sure, every nonprofit thinks they’re special.” That’s probably true,
but seriously, we really are. I can prove it.
I officially started out my career in reentry as a case
manager for a nonprofit in the DC area. People came in when they were released
from the county jail and my job was to help them. First step was always an
assessment. Across from a desk, I asked questions and jotted notes to determine
the person’s current needs. Did they have a place to live? A job? A way to get
around? Friends or family who could help? At the end, I had a checklist of
things I could offer the person. Mental health referral, check. List of
homeless shelters, check. A bus voucher, check. $10 gift card to McDonalds,
check. A backpack full of clothes, check. A list of “felon-friendly” employers,
check. My job was done. That’s what success looked like to the average reentry
organization back in 2006, and for the most part, still does today.
“Good luck,” I’d call out, and they’d be gone, sometimes to
resurface looking for additional help during a crisis, but mostly when they
were next released from jail. And so it went. I did that job for three years.
Watching people cycling in and out was exhausting. There had to be a better
way, didn’t there?
That was fourteen years ago and, as a country, we’re still
looking for the better way. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve made a ton of progress in
understanding what works to reduce recidivism. We’ve just done a terrible job
in applying it. Old habits die hard, I guess.
See, most organizations still approach prison reentry
through a charity lens. That’s our nonprofit roots, so it make sense. People
leaving prison lack basic needs, so we assume if we can fill these needs, then
they’ll be all set. We check off the boxes of the needs they have that we
understand and can fill. “Good luck” we still call out the door as they leave
with an arm full of referrals and bus tokens and clothes.
Okay I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t having
transportation, and clothes to wear and a job important? Of course they’re
important, but they’re not nearly enough. They’re just the beginning if we
really want to help someone who’s in and out of prison stay out for good.
Hear me out here. If a job was going to be the pivotal
factor for a person after prison, why didn’t it keep them out before they went
in? Most people worked before they were arrested or were working when they were
arrested. And while we have a hopscotch of research out there that’s confusing
as hell to sift through, the bulk of it supports my position that jobs programs
don’t work, basic needs programs don’t work, and housing programs don’t work to
reduce recidivism. Yes, they’re important services, but they by themselves
haven’t proven to impact long-term behavior. (Yes, Turning Leaf is a jobs
program, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)
So, what does work then? Here’s where your eyes might start
to glaze over a little. But stay with me because this is the heart of the
The concept of evidence-based practice in the field of reentry
describes the practices that have been proven by the most rigorous research to
significantly reduce recidivism. Several basic principles make up the key
components of reentry programs that are associated with recidivism reduction.
Basically, if programs incorporate these key components into their program
design, and execute well, they are likely reducing recidivism, if they don’t –
then the program is likely making no impact, or worse, doing harm (it’s actually
pretty easy to increase recidivism. I know from personal experience.) There’s a
lot of similarity here to the medical field. Health care professionals use the
best available medical research to guide patient care decisions. If they don’t
base their decisions on what the research says works to best diagnose and keep
people healthy, then they could make a person sick.
The model that encompasses the evidence-based principles in
reentry is known as Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR). Today the RNR model is the
only scientifically proven framework to help people change criminal behavior. Specifically,
the three key principles answer the questions of “who” to target, “what” to
target, and “how” to target in reentry programming if reducing recidivism is
Okay, I know that was a lot to digest so let me wrap it up.
In a nutshell, Turning Leaf is special because we incorporate and
execute on all the key principles that have been proven in research to reduce
recidivism. This is no easy task. In fact, I don’t know of another reentry
organization who can say the same thing. We’ve cracked the code on how to apply
these principles in a real-world setting at a consistently high quality. On our
face we might look like any other reentry program, but underneath, there’s
nothing like us.
Here’s what being an evidence-based reentry program looks like.
We use a risk assessment to ensure we’re only working with people
who are likely to be re-arrested. We use the results of that assessment to
drive our interventions, focusing on the factors that science proves are
related to re-offending. These factors are things like criminal thinking
patterns, lack of problem solving skills, and difficulty in managing difficult
feelings, like anger and frustration. And we do a ton of work highly targeted
on these factors in our group therapy classes and individual counseling
sessions. 150 hours of group therapy in four months is a lot of therapy. My
guess is that it’s more hours than any other organization in the country has
figured out how to pull off.
We help with stability issues like identification and
transportation, accessing medical care and finding housing and employment. But
those stability services are not the thing that impacts long-term
behavior change. Instead, we wrap that kind of help around our intense therapy
classes, so that a person has (probably for the first time ever) the space,
time and opportunity to learn how to think and act differently. And someone
can’t learn how to think and act differently unless they’re taught how, in
highly specific ways (our group therapy classes), shown how (staff models the
new behavior for them) and over a long enough period of time for it to stick
(four months, M-F, 9am-5pm).
All our students are hired on day one to work in our
screen-printing business. But it’s not really about a job. It’s about
stability. It’s about giving someone the time and space to learn how to change.
People go to social services agencies looking for help and are
ping-ponged around in the name of “referrals” and “collaboration.” Go here for
this and here for that. At Turning Leaf, we take the opposite approach. I always
joke that we should put a mat outside our front door that says, “Welcome Home.”
(The guys said this would be weird, so I haven’t done it – yet.)
So now you know how we’re special.
When people ask what I do for a living, a common response
is, “Oh cool, yeah, I have a friend who does kind of the same thing.” Nope.
They don’t. And now you know why.
 Polaschek, Devon
(2012). An appraisal of the
risk-need-responsivity (RNR) model of offender rehabilitation and its
application in correctional treatment. Legal and Criminological Psychology,
An audience at the Mount Pleasant library listens silently as three men calmly talk about violence, the crimes they’ve committed, the drugs they’ve sold — and the reason they quit.
She’s sitting in the front row.
The men are students of Amy Barch’s Turning Leaf Project, a local nonprofit working to quell the epidemic of recidivism. And the program appears to be a rousing success.
That is not hyperbole, just math. Nationally, 67 percent of people released from prison will be re-arrested for another crime within three years.
In the past two years, the rate for Turning Leaf graduates is 19 percent.
That’s an amazing statistic and, as a result, Barch has a growing national reputation in the field of cognitive behavioral therapy. Other cities and states send emissaries to study her work and hire Turning Leaf to consult on their own recidivism projects.
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Getting out of prison isn’t easy. There’s parole and probation to navigate, child custody issues, securing housing, finding a job, and avoiding the temptation to fall back into criminal habits. That’s what drew Turning Leaf Project founder Amy Barch to reentry work—despite her middle-class upbringing, she understood why the less privileged would take whatever they could get in a world stacked against them. “They haven’t been given much, so I kind of got why they broke rules and made bad decisions,” she explains.
Since earning her degree in law, societies, and justice from the University of Washington (Seattle), Barch intended to help people. After moving to Charleston in 2010, she struggled to find a reentry volunteer opportunity that she fully believed in. So she took a leap of faith, quit her job, and started Turning Leaf in 2011, with the support of then-police chief Greg Mullen and then-mayor Joe Riley.
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