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.
Barch is far too practical to be flattered. Results are all that matter to her. And she says the current sample sizes at Turning Leaf are too small; she needs more data, more students.
She wants to compile enough statistics that independent researchers can come in, review the program and verify what she already believes: Her approach works.
So Turning Leaf is expanding.
All this began eight years ago, when Barch was working with inmates in Charleston County’s jail.
She’d previously volunteered at re-entry programs in Washington, D.C., but didn’t think it was enough to simply give recently released criminals a bus pass and throw them into a job.
Barch developed a cognitive behavioral therapy program, which basically rewires the minds of felons to understand the consequences of their actions and adopt personal responsibility and empathy.
With the support of Charleston city and police officials, Turning Leaf opened. The first classes were small but innovative. The program took only violent, repeat offenders and paid them to attend class, helped them find work.
The results were promising from the start, but money was tight in the early days. Now, with support from the city and the county, various foundations and private donations, Turning Leaf is more sustainable. Only $70,000 of its $500,000 budget for this year remains to be raised.
This is a program state and federal governments should invest in more heavily. It costs about $6,200 to put a person through Turning Leaf; taxpayers spend between $25,000 and $35,000 to keep one man behind bars for a year.
Barch has recently finished an entire cognitive behavioral therapy curriculum for Turning Leaf. She could license it to other organizations and make serious money but refuses to do so. Without the rest of the program she and her staff have developed — the counseling, the classes, the jobs, the zero-tolerance policy on drug use — Barch says the curriculum wouldn’t work.
And ultimately this isn’t about profit, or even saving money.
It’s about saving lives.
In the past five years, the small team at Turning Leaf has grown enough to handle 40 or 50 students a year.
This year, it will expand to 80, then 120 next year, topping out three years from now with about 150. That shouldn’t be a problem; these days, Turning Leaf has a waiting list.
To expand, Barch has been forced to focus on the core mission of rehabilitating repeat offenders. Her staff has grown to six, including herself and one of her graduates — who now recruits new students off the streets.
The project also runs a busy screen-printing business, and many students end up learning the vocation.
But to handle two shifts of sessions each day, Turning Leaf will soon stop offering classes in the jail. Barch regrets the change; that’s where it all began and judges like the program. But those classes don’t address the core mission: keeping people out of jail.
A staggering amount of the crime committed in this country is the work of repeat offenders who endlessly cycle through the courts and the jails.
Breaking that cycle would not only help violent offenders, it would save countless victims and the misery it brings to their families.
That's why Barch does what she does, and it's important work.
If her research is right, Barch may have found the model to transform the entire criminal justice system.
And you can't put a price tag on that.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.