Study on Experiences of Forensic Peer Specialists is Impacting New York City Criminal Justice Policy

Recently completed research by Silver School Assistant Professor Dr. Stacey Barrenger on the experiences of peer specialists with mental health and criminal justice histories is on the cusp of being translated into practice by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ).

Dr. Barrenger’s qualitative study, conducted from December 2014 to February 2016 and funded by a grant from NYU’s Research Challenge Fund, investigated how peer specialists with criminal justice histories incorporate their lived experience into their work, and how they benefit from the work in terms of their recovery and abstaining from future criminal activity.

According to Dr. Barrenger, “The federal Affordable Care Act made mental health peer support services reimbursable under Medicaid and Medicare and, as a result, there has been dramatic growth in the use of peers in mental health settings. However, the criminal justice system has lagged in incorporating peer specialists in its mental health programs. This study aims to add to the science base for expanding the peer workforce among this vulnerable population.”

Study participants were 85% male, 85% African American or mixed race, and had worked on average for two years as a peer specialist. As a group they received an average of 16 years of mental health services, and spent on average 10 years in jail or prison. Participants were interviewed at three time points during the study period for a total of 45 interviews.

Dr. Barrenger said initial findings from the study support greater utilization of mental health peer specialists with criminal justice backgrounds. “Among the advantages peer specialists told us they had in working with clients with mental health challenges and criminal justice involvement were insider knowledge of clients’ experience and ability to draw from their own experiences; ability to engage and build rapport with clients in a way professionals cannot; and ability to instill hope and be a role model.” She added that peer specialists also expressed many ways they benefited from doing this work. “They were able to recast negative experiences into positive ones, recognize that they were making contributions to society, connect with others, and feel successful in applying their knowledge and skills, all of which reinforced their own recovery.”

This past summer, Laquisha Grant, Program Coordinator for MOCJ, heard Dr. Barrenger and Lynnae Brown, Director of Howie the Harp Advocacy Center (HTH), give a presentation on the preliminary study findings. The study participants were all graduates of HTH, a peer-run agency in New York City that provides employment training, resources, and support to people with mental health conditions, Ms. Grant was so compelled by what she heard that MOCJ is now developing work groups to address barriers and employment issues around expanding the forensic peer work force.

Ms. Grant explained, “My office had been interested in expanding the number of forensic peers that are working in different parts of the criminal justice system, but there was very little information available. Dr. Barrenger’s study established that there is a group of peer specialists with criminal justice involvement who are motivated to work in these settings and see real benefits as a result. The presentation and conversation afterward laid the groundwork for me to take action by bringing together representatives from relevant government agencies, health homes and nonprofit providers of alternatives to incarceration and reentry services, who are in a position to hire and can really affect the numbers of forensic peers in the system.”

Dr. Barrenger said, “It is very gratifying to me that my research is influencing the city’s plans for this population. I am optimistic that this is just the beginning of its impact.” She added that as data analysis on this project continues, she has been meeting with study participants, HTH staff, and other stakeholders to garner their input on the value of this data, important audiences for dissemination, and potential next steps for intervention development.

Ms. Brown, the Director of HTH, noted how important it is that forensic peer specialists themselves have a continued role now that the study is complete. “What we found when we showed study participants the preliminary data is that they were able to flesh out the meaning right away,” she said. “They honed in on details researchers without lived experience might have missed. The fact that their voices are being heard not just in the study itself but also in its interpretation further strengthens the data and findings.”