Most nonprofits think they’re special, but we really are

To an untrained eye, it’s easy to think that Turning Leaf is just like any other reentry organization. But we’re not. Okay, you might be thinking, “Sure, every nonprofit thinks they’re special.” That’s probably true, but seriously, we really are. I can prove it.  

I officially started out my career in reentry as a case manager for a nonprofit in the DC area. People came in when they were released from the county jail and my job was to help them. First step was always an assessment. Across from a desk, I asked questions and jotted notes to determine the person’s current needs. Did they have a place to live? A job? A way to get around? Friends or family who could help? At the end, I had a checklist of things I could offer the person. Mental health referral, check. List of homeless shelters, check. A bus voucher, check. $10 gift card to McDonalds, check. A backpack full of clothes, check. A list of “felon-friendly” employers, check. My job was done. That’s what success looked like to the average reentry organization back in 2006, and for the most part, still does today. 

“Good luck,” I’d call out, and they’d be gone, sometimes to resurface looking for additional help during a crisis, but mostly when they were next released from jail. And so it went. I did that job for three years. Watching people cycling in and out was exhausting. There had to be a better way, didn’t there?

That was fourteen years ago and, as a country, we’re still looking for the better way. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve made a ton of progress in understanding what works to reduce recidivism. We’ve just done a terrible job in applying it. Old habits die hard, I guess.

See, most organizations still approach prison reentry through a charity lens. That’s our nonprofit roots, so it make sense. People leaving prison lack basic needs, so we assume if we can fill these needs, then they’ll be all set. We check off the boxes of the needs they have that we understand and can fill. “Good luck” we still call out the door as they leave with an arm full of referrals and bus tokens and clothes.

Okay I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t having transportation, and clothes to wear and a job important? Of course they’re important, but they’re not nearly enough. They’re just the beginning if we really want to help someone who’s in and out of prison stay out for good.

Hear me out here. If a job was going to be the pivotal factor for a person after prison, why didn’t it keep them out before they went in? Most people worked before they were arrested or were working when they were arrested. And while we have a hopscotch of research out there that’s confusing as hell to sift through, the bulk of it supports my position that jobs programs don’t work, basic needs programs don’t work, and housing programs don’t work to reduce recidivism. Yes, they’re important services, but they by themselves haven’t proven to impact long-term behavior. (Yes, Turning Leaf is a jobs program, but we’ll get to that in a minute.) 

So, what does work then? Here’s where your eyes might start to glaze over a little. But stay with me because this is the heart of the matter.

The concept of evidence-based practice in the field of reentry describes the practices that have been proven by the most rigorous research to significantly reduce recidivism. Several basic principles make up the key components of reentry programs that are associated with recidivism reduction. Basically, if programs incorporate these key components into their program design, and execute well, they are likely reducing recidivism, if they don’t – then the program is likely making no impact, or worse, doing harm (it’s actually pretty easy to increase recidivism. I know from personal experience.) There’s a lot of similarity here to the medical field. Health care professionals use the best available medical research to guide patient care decisions. If they don’t base their decisions on what the research says works to best diagnose and keep people healthy, then they could make a person sick.

The model that encompasses the evidence-based principles in reentry is known as Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR). Today the RNR model is the only scientifically proven framework to help people change criminal behavior.[1] Specifically, the three key principles answer the questions of “who” to target, “what” to target, and “how” to target in reentry programming if reducing recidivism is the goal.

Okay, I know that was a lot to digest so let me wrap it up.

In a nutshell, Turning Leaf is special because we incorporate and execute on all the key principles that have been proven in research to reduce recidivism. This is no easy task. In fact, I don’t know of another reentry organization who can say the same thing. We’ve cracked the code on how to apply these principles in a real-world setting at a consistently high quality. On our face we might look like any other reentry program, but underneath, there’s nothing like us.

Here’s what being an evidence-based reentry program looks like.

We use a risk assessment to ensure we’re only working with people who are likely to be re-arrested. We use the results of that assessment to drive our interventions, focusing on the factors that science proves are related to re-offending. These factors are things like criminal thinking patterns, lack of problem solving skills, and difficulty in managing difficult feelings, like anger and frustration. And we do a ton of work highly targeted on these factors in our group therapy classes and individual counseling sessions. 150 hours of group therapy in four months is a lot of therapy. My guess is that it’s more hours than any other organization in the country has figured out how to pull off.

We help with stability issues like identification and transportation, accessing medical care and finding housing and employment. But those stability services are not the thing that impacts long-term behavior change. Instead, we wrap that kind of help around our intense therapy classes, so that a person has (probably for the first time ever) the space, time and opportunity to learn how to think and act differently. And someone can’t learn how to think and act differently unless they’re taught how, in highly specific ways (our group therapy classes), shown how (staff models the new behavior for them) and over a long enough period of time for it to stick (four months, M-F, 9am-5pm).

All our students are hired on day one to work in our screen-printing business. But it’s not really about a job. It’s about stability. It’s about giving someone the time and space to learn how to change.

People go to social services agencies looking for help and are ping-ponged around in the name of “referrals” and “collaboration.” Go here for this and here for that. At Turning Leaf, we take the opposite approach. I always joke that we should put a mat outside our front door that says, “Welcome Home.” (The guys said this would be weird, so I haven’t done it – yet.)

So now you know how we’re special.

When people ask what I do for a living, a common response is, “Oh cool, yeah, I have a friend who does kind of the same thing.” Nope. They don’t. And now you know why.

[1] Polaschek, Devon (2012). An appraisal of the risk-need-responsivity (RNR) model of offender rehabilitation and its application in correctional treatment. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 17, 1-17.