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Employing people with lived experience: ‘It’s often about prejudice, not risk’

The criminal justice system faces a range of systemic issues, from overburdened prisons to crumbling courts to an uncertain future for probation, all amplified by COVID-19. Now more than ever, we need fresh, innovative and systemic solutions, which can be provided by employing people with lived experience across the criminal justice sector. However, many face barriers to employment, as set out in our Change from Within report. The CJA recently held the fourth meeting of its Lived Experience Expert Group, chaired by CJA trustee C.J. Burge from St. Giles Trust, to discuss how we can implement the recommendations in that report.

The expert group said that the challenge of securing employment for prison leavers will be even greater during COVID-19. People with convictions are often ‘bottom of the pile’, especially when unemployment is high. The positive work done on reducing stigma around employing people with convictions and advocating for criminal records reform will need to be reinforced.

CJA Director Nina Champion updated the group on several positive calls the CJA has had with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), HMPPS, and the Going Forward into Employment (GFiE) scheme at the Cabinet Office, which aims to get prison leavers into employment in the civil service. However, the GFiE scheme currently is limited to people leaving prison, rather than applicants who are on probation, and the roles are limited in terms of seniority. There are also a lack of opportunities to work in the Ministry of Justice or HMPPS itself. The expert group commented that people with convictions often face a ‘glass ceiling’. They felt GFiE must be clear about how people can progress in the civil service and offer ‘growth’ roles, as well as opening up opportunities to those on probation. According to the expert group, lots of work needs to be done to change perceptions and raise awareness of the benefits of lived experience in the MoJ and wider civil service.

There are challenges in other parts of the sector too. The group felt that it can be difficult to get people with lived experience into work in schools and Pupil Referral Units because there is a misconception that they ‘glorify’ crime. And vetting continues to be a barrier to people with convictions working in prisons, due to the discretion of individual governors who may not be as progressive as others. One expert group member said: ‘It’s often about prejudice, not risk.’

In terms of promoting criminal justice roles in prison and probation settings, the expert group highlighted that criminal justice organisations need to attend job fairs, which are often only attended by construction, restaurants and retail. The expert group noted that current probation reform provides an opportunity to create spaces for people with lived experience at various levels. The expert group also said that the Charity Commission — which can disqualify people with certain convictions from working in leadership roles — continues to be a barrier, with only a small number of waivers granted.

The expert group noted that volunteering continues to be a vital stepping stone into work in the criminal justice sector for people with lived experience. However, there must be progression routes from volunteering into paid work. As one expert group member said, ‘people need to eat.’ There must also be more support for people with lived experience who have spotted a gap in criminal justice provision to set up social enterprises.

The CJA thanks the expert group members for their contributions and will promote the issues and solutions raised to policy makers in the coming months. For more information, read our Change from Within report, which features insights from people with lived experience working to improve the criminal justice system.