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A rehabilitation program that could become a national model

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Shakiem Maxwell will tell you straight — he was headed down the wrong road, doing all the wrong things.

At 22, he already had a rap sheet that included attempted armed robbery, forgery and drug crimes. He was doing time in the Charleston County jail when Amy Barch found him.

Today, Maxwell is enrolled in Barch’s Turning Leaf Project — a program that rehabilitates and reintroduces convicted criminals to society. He takes 18 hours of classes each week in cognitive behavioral therapy, financial planning and entrepreneurship. The rest of the week, he works for the city, cleaning streets and gutters.

Now Maxwell has a real job — and a new outlook.

“When you have so much positive going on, you don’t want to jeopardize that to go out and sell drugs,” he says. “I went from making $800 a month to $1,400 a month without having to take chances. It’s amazing to not have to worry about what you’re doing.”

For years, Barch has been working with inmates at the jail, dealing with the personality traits that make them commit crime, helping them plan for a normal life once they’re released — and introducing them to victims of crime.

“It shows you the impact of crime, how it affects you and the victim,” Maxwell says. “It makes you realize that it doesn’t just affect you, but others, too.”

There is no other reentry program like it in South Carolina, and only one other in the country. See, Turning Leaf pays its students to attend classes and helps them find temporary work the second they leave jail. That’s the key. Many have a hard time getting a job straight out of jail so they turn to what they know. It’s a vicious cycle.

Barch is taking high-risk recidivists and turning them into working, taxpaying citizens.

It’s no wonder judges, police officials and prosecutors sing her praises, and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley calls her “our Mother Teresa.”

There are 22,000 people in South Carolina prisons, and 1,200 in Charleston County’s jail on any given day. Most will return to crime once they are released.

National statistics show that within three years, two-thirds of released inmates will be arrested for another crime. Within five years, it’s higher than 75 percent.

The only way to reduce crime, and control the prison population, is to actually rehabilitate people. U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles was at the Turning Leaf center’s grand opening Monday, noting the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prison population.

“We can’t incarcerate our way out of this problem,” he says.

But it is politically expedient to lock ’em all up.

Nettles and others are impressed with Barch’s program because it uses a research- and evidence-based approach to deal with those people most likely to be repeat offenders.

“If they can’t get jobs, the reality is they will hustle on the side,” Barch says. “If you give them part-time employment that comes with an employment opportunity, that’s the carrot. These people need to be in a structured program.”

Barch worked with a reentry program in Washington, D.C. When her family moved to Charleston, she took work waiting tables so she could start her program. After more than three years of therapy and training with inmates, the jail began to report that her clients showed much better behavior. So she cobbled together grants, corporate donations and government help to open the Turning Leaf Center in North Charleston.

She works with dozens at a time in the jail but takes only 15 or less at one time for the release program. The men selected avoid prison time but can only participate if the judge, prosecutors — and their victims — agree to it.

The first class of 11 men was released in the summer of 2014. Seven graduated and all but one of them still has full-time work. Now they pay taxes, are staying out of trouble, and the state saved $300,000 in prison costs.

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen first met Barch 18 months ago and took her straight to Riley.

The mayor and City Council set aside $65,000 for the program, and offered Barch’s clients temporary jobs with the street department, in the fleet maintenance garage, or cleaning up playgrounds and ball fields.

Riley and Mullen believe Turning Leaf is destined to become a national model for rehabilitating criminals and reducing recidivism. So do a lot of other people. Local attorney Tom Tisdale, chairman of the Turning Leaf board, calls it a “ground-breaking” program.

Bill Finn, chairman of Asten Johnson, said the business community has to pony up some jobs if Turning Leaf is going to expand.

It wouldn’t hurt if everyone pitched in. The nonprofit relies on unreliable government grants and private donations to meet its $200,000 budget. They always have needs, from office supplies to the T-shirts they use as uniforms.

To donate, you can send checks to the Turning Leaf Project at P.O. Box 80112, Charleston, S.C. 29416.

That will help folks like Kelvin Dayse, 29. He grew up with a good family in a bad area. The peer pressure on him was tremendous, the opportunities few. He turned to crime, ended up in jail — until Barch found him.

“All I thought about was fast money, all I was doing was selling drugs,” Dayse says. “Now I have my first job. I want to do it the right way.”

If that’s what Turning Leaf can do, it should become a national model.

Reach Brian Hicks at

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