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Charleston offenders offered another chance at freedom, with new prison alternative program

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Amy Barch doesn't just take chances, she gives them.

In 2011, Barch founded The Turning Leaf Project, a volunteer-led initiative focused on educating criminal offenders and preparing them for successful re-entry.

After years of success inside the walls of the Al Cannon Detention Center, The Turning Leaf project has now evolved to include a new pilot program, offering men sentenced to prison, a second chance at freedom.

To start, on June 18, Barch assumed responsibility for eleven men. Each was flagged by a public defender as a viable candidate for the program.

Following 11 weeks of rehabilitative training inside the county jail, all 11 were released to Barch for a near 20-week diversion program.

“I think a lot of those guys feel like this was their last chance, and it was an opportunity that was God sent,” she said.

While the requirements for each participant is different, all are required to complete a cognitive behavioral course, attend weekly group meetings, complete community service, in addition to various forms of counseling.

Each offender enrolled is also held to the terms of their probation.

Cary Stephens, 23, is one the remaining nine men still enrolled in the program. Two have since committed offenses to disqualify them from the program.

“I was headed toward the path of destruction,” Stephens said.

The West Ashley native faced seven years in prison on drugs and weapons charges. It's a life he speaks about openly now, something Barch says is an encouraging sign of the program's success.

“Nine people out of 11 that were going to be serving a prison term are now out here working, paying child support, paying restitution, and they are being contributing members of our community,” she added.

Xavier McClain, 36, is also among the nine.

McClain faced up to 16 years in prison, but is now holding down a full-time job for the first time in his adult life.

“I wasn't angry at the world, or angry at no one,” he said. “I just lived the street life.”

McClain, like many others in the program, admits he had several opportunities to change before.

The difference now? His desire.

“Me just wanting it,” McClain said. “No matter how many people are in your corner, or what's going on, if the individual doesn't want change the change is not going to come.”

“They knew it was something special, and now they're running with it,” Barch added.

“That's been great to see.”

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