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A network for people with lived experience: the journey so far

By the New Leaf Network

In 2019 Marie-Claire O’Brien, founder of the New Leaf Initiative, conducted research into the experiences of entrepreneurs with convictions who now work in the criminal justice sector. Marie-Claire won the CJA’s Outstanding Individual Award in 2018 and used the prize money to help conduct the research.  

Marie-Claire found that people with convictions often possess traits which are likely to make them successful leaders and entrepreneurs. However, they face a range of barriers when working in the sector. This includes the stigma they can face if they choose to share their story and the unnecessarily laborious and punitive vetting processes which often prevent them from supporting people in prisons and on probation.  

Participants in the research told Marie-Claire that the entrepreneurial journey for people with convictions can be a lonely one and highlighted how meeting peers had helped them overcome their difficulties. They called for peer support, networking and leadership mentoring. What’s more, people with lived experience said they were keen to support and give back to those at the start of their leadership journeys.  

In the late summer of 2020, the New Leaf Initiative held a roundtable event for leaders with lived experience. This was the very beginning of what would organically grow into the New Leaf Network — a network ran by people with lived experience for people with lived experience, unifying and supporting each other to develop personally and professionally. We formed a committee and began making plans, and later decided that we would also welcome allies to the network.  

In December 2020 we held the first New Leaf Conference and Awards. This was hosted online due to COVID-19, and sponsorship from The Forward Trust, P3 and Timpsons enabled us to pay for a studio and production team. The conference featured inspiring keynote speakers such as Sunny Dhadley, and the awards celebrated outstanding leaders with lived experience influencing change in the criminal justice system. The event was a huge success, with positive feedback and over 100 delegates attending. Watch the New Leaf Network Awards ceremony. 

Since then, we have held a number of online meetings, giving members from across the country the chance to network and discuss key topics. In one meeting, we discussed whether license conditions are always reasonable and proportionate, and whether there should be a more bespoke approach to considering risk. In a meeting held yesterday, we discussed the unique contribution that people with lived experience can make in the criminal justice sector. In addition, we have shared employment opportunities to members from an array of organisations including Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, NHS Liaison and Diversion Services and The Forward Trust.  

When someone with lived experience challenges something, they are seen as disruptive. When someone at Google challenges something, they are seen as innovative. We hope that the New Leaf Network will become a nationally recognised body that showcases the power of lived experience, increases opportunities for people with lived experience and ultimately changes the criminal justice system for the better. 

It’s an exciting time for the network, and we’re currently busy planning for the future. One of our goals is to develop an app and online platform where people can access support and opportunities. Our first conference last year was a huge success and this is something we’re planning to repeat this year, hopefully in a real venue, streamed online for those who can’t attend in person. 

We’ve developed a mission statement and a set of core values which drive all our work. 

Mission Statement: People with lived experience of the Criminal Justice System unifying and supporting others to develop, personally and professionally.  

Core values 

  • Lived Experience  
  • Connection and Collaboration  
  • Integrity  
  • Thinking outside the box / open minded  
  • Empathy over Ego  
  • Inclusivity 

The New Leaf Network is open for new members. If you’d like to become a member, please email 

Improving access for people with lived experience to work in the criminal justice sector, both in peer support and leadership roles, is a key focus of the CJA. Read our Change from Within report, which highlights the unique skills of people with lived experience and the barriers they face.