Is The Thought Process the Key to Reducing Recidivism?

Rickey grew up surrounded by drug use, poverty and criminal activity, so it surprised no one when he headed off to prison, or when he returned repeatedly.  After each stint in the penitentiary, Rickey resolved not to make the same mistakes, but change is hard and he always reverted to his old ways.  

In the summer of 2016, Rickey entered an intensive program offered by the Turning Leaf Project to rewire his decision-making process. After 150 hours of training, Turning Leaf placed him in a temporary job with the City of North Charleston. He was determined to make it work. “I’ve come too far to go back,” he said.

Rickey is coping better with life on the outside. He now has a permanent position with the city and for the first time has hopes and dreams. He plans to complete probation and earn his commercial driver’s license.

The issues that drive literally millions of others like Rickey to lives of crime are varied, complex and challenging. They are internal, like a lack of self-control, and external, like lack of education and employment. And they cost our nation dearly, in monetary and social terms. This cycle of imprisonment and reimprisonment is referred to as “recidivism.”

A study by The Center for Criminal Justice Research found that reducing recidivism by just one percent in Marion County, Indiana would save taxpayers $1.55 million and improve the lives of 46 former inmates and their families.

Suppose instead we could cut the national recidivism rate from two-thirds to 30 percent? That’s more than half.

Disrupting the Street-to-Prison Cycle

That’s the question Amy Barch asked when she moved to Charleston with her criminal justice degree and a decade of work in juvenile justice. Observing  the need for a program that could interrupt the streets-to-prison cycle, she started the Turning Leaf Project, a rehabilitation and re-entry nonprofit serving adult men who are assessed at a medium to high risk of re-incarceration.

Turning Leaf works with inmates as they transition from prison. Its intensive nine-month program employs evidence-based practices to improve participants’ thinking, decision-making and problem-solving skills. Because research suggests that participants need at least 100 hours of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in order to acquire the skills to improve their behavior, participants at Turning Leaf attend 10-week, 15-hour-a-week classes.

In order to keep people in the program while allowing them to earn a living, Turning Leaf pays a stipend of $120-$150/week that can be earned by dressing appropriately, showing up on time, submitting homework, and so on. The project focuses on anti-social thought, behavior, personality and peer groups.

At the end of the 10-week program, Turning Leaf places participants in temporary jobs with the cities of Charleston and North Charleston, and with private employers.

Growing Pains for Turning Leaf
Amy Barch will be the first to admit that it has not all been smooth sailing for Turning Leaf. In the first couple of years, participants finishing therapy were placed in jobs and flaming out at a 40% rate. The organization held itself accountable and revamped the program. “I just have to be really transparent to feel good about taking community money,” she said. “If something is not working it’s my responsibility to try to fix that.”

Turning Leaf determined that even 150 hours of therapy might not be sufficient for high-risk individuals. They have established their own screen printing business so they can continue to monitor and support participants while employing them.

The cost of incarcerating an individual is roughly $30,000 each year he is behind bars. The cost of Turning Leaf’s re-entry program is $6,000. The current program is just 17 months old, but the results are promising: of the 16 graduates so far, none has been re-arrested.

One reason for Turning Leaf’s success, Barch says, is the support it has received from local law enforcement and municipal leaders. The organization has received national attention and is being presented as a paradigm for other communities to emulate.