Keep up-to-date with drugs and crime

The latest research, policy, practice and opinion on our criminal justice and drug & alcohol treatment systems
Elevating lived experience leaders for change
Guest post by Nola Sterling on the ELEVATE CJS lived experience leadership programme.

Share This Post


This is a guest post by Nola Sterling, ELEVATE CJS Project Manager at the Criminal Justice Alliance.

At the launch of our ELEVATE CJS lived experience leadership programme, I heard our friends at Just Leadership USA say that ‘those closest to the problem are those closest to the solution, but furthest from resources and power’. It is through this lens that we must understand the urgency of investing in lived experience leadership.

Our criminal justice system is not working at its optimum, and its flaws are the product of its archaic infrastructure. The system – the way that it functions and the way that we work within it – needs to be reimagined, redesigned and rebuilt to serve society today. But change is not going to just happen. We need people who can challenge and disrupt the status quo with innovative ideas and system-focused solutions. People with lived experience of the criminal justice system must be at the forefront of this movement because they bring unique perspectives: they have been through the system, so they know how it works and what must change for it to work better.

A growing number of people with lived experience work in the criminal justice sector, equipping them with lived and learned understanding of how the system works operationally. There are, therefore, multiple levels of expertise that people with lived experience contribute to the sector and their work, which is primarily in peer-to-peer roles, is essential.

People with lived experience frequently flourish in client-facing roles. But many of these roles do not provide professional development opportunities to bolster their strengths and to progress their career. And if these professionals want to elevate to higher paid, influential roles, they are faced with multiple barriers. Some barriers are perceptions, both of those hiring and those applying. Legislation and policy can also preclude people with lived experience from opportunities to be part of senior leadership and governance teams. Stigma continues to overshadow capability, and self-confidence can be hindered by imposter syndrome. Sharing lived experience allows people to highlight their valuable expertise, but this is not often possible without fear of judgment and repercussions. People may be so grateful to be working and building a life for themselves that they do not have the confidence to speak up and step up, despite their potential. This is not surprising – the people who do tend to be shut down.

Lived experience leadership

Lived experience leadership is crucial, yet it is far from common. This begs the question: How progressive and effective can our sector be in helping people impacted by the criminal justice system if we are not involving people with similar experiences in senior decision-making? As organisations in the criminal justice sector, we must reconsider how we support lived experience leadership. We must challenge ourselves first, as employers, to establish inclusive workplaces and champion change across the sector and system.

We must change not only hearts and minds, but also policies and practices. People with lived experience bring an intrinsic, unparalleled passion to criminal justice; a passion that makes working in the sector more than a job – it becomes a vocation. Employers must open doors not only to career opportunities, but also access to vital wellbeing support for safe and sustainable leadership.

Elevating Lived Experience Voices, Advocacy, Training and Expertise

The Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) is piloting ELEVATE CJS, one of the first programmes of its kind. ELEVATE CJS, an acronym for ‘Elevating Lived Experience Voices, Advocacy, Training and Expertise in the Criminal Justice System’, is the culmination of five years of expert peer-to-peer research, including the CJA’s Change From Within report and an investigation of good practice internationally.

The ELEVATE CJS programme is a comprehensive twelve-month leadership programme that promotes the redistribution of power to people with lived experience of the criminal justice system. The programme aims to dismantle the barriers of stigma and tokenism, which prevent emerging leaders who are working in the sector from progressing to positions of power and influence. Through personal and professional development training, the programme will equip individuals with the skills, knowledge, and networks to advance systemic change, challenging the criminal justice sector to reimagine who can be a leader.

When the emerging leaders have completed the ELEVATE CJS programme I would like them to feel empowered, I would like them to feel ready, and I would like them to feel valuable. The end of the programme is only the beginning of their leadership journey towards creating systemic change.

Do you or someone you know have the potential to be a lived experience leader for change?

Applications are now open to attend the ELEVATE CJS Taster Day 2022, following which applications will open for the 2023 cohort. ELEVATE CJS runs from January to December. The first cohort will begin the programme in January 2023.

Apply to attend the ELEVATE CJS Taster Day by clicking here.

Find out more about ELEVATE CJS, and sign up to be first to know when applications open for the 2023 cohort:

If you have any questions about ELEVATE CJS, please email ELEVATE CJS Project Manager, Nola Sterling 

Share This Post

Related posts

Criminal Justice
Young people on youth diversion

Young people on how their contact with the youth justice system is influenced by their ethnic background.

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Criminal Justice Posts are sponsored by Get the Data

Measuring Social Impact

Our cutting-edge approach to measurement and evaluation is underpinned by robust methods, rigorous analyses, and cost-effective data collection.

Proving Social Impact

Get the Data provides Social Impact Analytics to enable organisations to demonstrate their impact on society.


Get every blog post by email for free