Turning Leaf began as a volunteer effort in 2011 as a response to the lack of services for current and former inmates in Charleston, SC. Amy Barch moved to Charleston in 2010 and began looking for meaningful volunteer opportunities to continue her work in jail education and transitional services for former inmates. What she found was a huge gap in local services. Amy approached jail officials and asked that she be allowed to run a volunteer program for inmates, called Impact of Crime. Turning Leaf was born when Amy ran her first class at the Charleston County Detention Center in April, 2011.
The project evolved out of a part-time volunteer effort and into Amy’s full time work after gaining recognition and traction in the community from 2011 – 2012. Attorneys and judges became aware of the class content and change in offender thinking and attitude as a result the Turning Leaf experience. Demand for the program was very high. Program graduation certificates were being taken into consideration during sentencing. Charleston County jail administrators reported better behavior among class participants. During this time, Amy lengthened the program and added an additional 50 hours of cognitive behavioral therapy to the curriculum. The Impact of Crime program evolved into Turning Leaf.
2013 – 2014
By the time Amy began discussions with the Public Defender’s Office, the Solicitor’s Office and the Charleston Police about using the program as an alternative to prison, hundreds of inmates had been enrolled in the program. In April 2014, three years after the program’s inception, 11 men were sentenced to Turning Leaf in lieu of prison. In addition to 75 hours of programming inside the jail, the men were provided supportive services and educational classes upon their release. Turning Leaf had officially made the leap from a jail-based program into a true reentry effort.
2015 marked two major events for Turning Leaf. One was the opening of the Turning Leaf Center. This is home base, where all of the participants come for education and support after release. The second was a job training partnership with the City of Charleston. All Turning Leaf students left jail with a guaranteed temporary job with the City. Our goal was for the men to have what they need to be successful after incarceration – a network of support, the thinking skills to make good decisions and employment. Twenty-seven men were sentenced to Turning Leaf in 2015 as an alternative to prison.
By 2016 Turning Leaf had earned public accolades, acceptance by the criminal justice system and demonstrated an impact on changing patterns of criminal behavior in program graduates. However, there were reasons to be dissatisfied. As an alternative to prison program, we experienced a high number of dropouts after our participants were released from jail. Because the program was run as a closed-ended model, we were not able to fill those empty spots. Our services were subsequently inefficient and underutilized. In an effort to evaluate this and other challenges, we hired a consultant in January 2016 to facilitate a week-long strategic planning session. From the workshop we made a number of improvements to the program model.
We dedicated the remainder of 2016 to the execution of those improvements, including pivoting to a reentry rather than an alternative to prison program and modifying the curriculum to an open-enrollment model where new participants can begin every week. We hired a third staff member in June to provide case management services, and began enrollment into the newly designed program in July. Students were required to first complete a minimum of 100 hours of classes before job placement. We added the City of North Charleston on as a job partner.