Turning Leaf getting national attention, for good reason

Amy Barch, director of Turning Leaf Project, watches a skit performed by two inmates at the Cannon Detention Center.

There are about a dozen guys sitting in this room — some of them tattooed, some with long hair or dreads — talking casually about doing drugs, committing crimes.

Quietly and calmly, they are listing the factors that led them into both. Joe McGrew urges them on, writes their answers on a board at the front of a classroom.

Yes, a classroom.

This is cognitive behavior class at Turning Leaf, a program that rehabilitates and reintroduces convicted criminals into society. This is no “hug a thug” session, as some dismissively call attempts to curb recidivism. This is a way to cut down on repeat offenders and unclog the justice system.

Turning Leaf takes repeat offenders out of cells, puts them in jobs and forces them to take 18 hours of class a week. The purpose of these classes is to rewire their thinking, to make them take responsibility for their actions, to learn a little self-control and self-respect.

One person after the next in the Turning Leaf class talks about the influence of friends, the feelings of hopelessness, the lack of a family that led them into doing things they know are wrong.

It’s pretty powerful stuff, and some pretty powerful people are taking note.

Last month, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Quillan Yates — who recently visited the Charleston program — hailed Turning Leaf as a promising program with the potential to “change the whole criminal justice system.”

A lot of local people in the system already knew that this could be a national model in the making.

“There are people ready with some guidance to change their lives, and we’re all better off for it,” says U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel.

Turning Leaf is the brainchild of Amy Barch, who developed the model after working for a reentry program in Washington, D.C.

She began working with inmates at the Charleston County jail, and the difference in their behavior was so striking that police officials, judges and prosecutors were impressed. They call Barch brilliant.

“This seems like it has a better chance of working than some programs, and giving the court system an additional tool,” says U.S. Assistant Attorney Sean Kittrell. “Most people today make excuses for what they’ve done. When these guys go through the program, they learn to take responsibility for their actions.”

Barch thought most reentry programs were too lax, didn’t offer a high enough dosage of training and class time. Her students, and there is no other word for them, sit through 18 hours of classes on cognitive behavioral therapy, financial planning and the like each week. For six months.

The cities of Charleston and North Charleston give these folks jobs, and Turning Leaf pays them to attend classes — with perfect attendance they can make $2,500 over the course of the six month program. That’s about $100 a week.

The goal, of course, is to reduce crime and rehabilitate repeat offenders, but there is also a very shrewd dollars and cents element to this: It costs about $5,000 to $7,000 to put someone through Turning Leaf.

But it costs taxpayers $20,000 a year to incarcerate them in a state prison, $30,000 in a federal prison.

“If you can extend the time people are off the streets, and out of the system,” Barch said, it saves hundreds of thousands — even millions — of dollars a year for taxpayers.

And it keeps the streets safer.

Barch and McGrew, Turning Leaf’s only other employee, are no pushovers.

If someone is released to their program and refuses to show up to class, they put out a warrant for them. There is no fooling around.

But they also believe in second chances; that’s what the program is all about. Take John Williams. He went through Barch’s last class but, after it was over, slipped and got caught shoplifting — which is what he was in for in the first place.

While awaiting trial, he called Barch and asked if he could sit in on some more classes.

“The program helped me a great deal, and I’m not happy with some of the things I got into,” Williams says. “I have to take more responsibility. I just have to hang in there.”

Barch is no idealist; she realizes that not everyone can be helped. But her young program is showing such promise that the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, judges and police are all enthusiastic and doing everything they can to help her keep the doors open.

“If 90 percent of these guys are recidivists and we get that down to even 50 percent or 60 percent, that’s huge,” Kittrell says.

All you have to do is look at Shakiem Maxwell. His rap sheet includes forgery, drug crimes and attempted armed robbery. But he graduated in Turning Leaf’s last class, went out and got a job (he had two for a while) and has gone six months without a single second glance from the police.

His probation officers are so proud of Maxwell’s progress that they are in the middle of terminating his parole. For the first time since he was 16, Maxwell will be free of judicial system oversight and simply out making it in the world like everyone else.

“If it can happen for me, it can happen for anyone,” he says.

That is what Turning Leaf can do. That is why Washington has taken notice, and everyone else should, too.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.