Centering the Insights of Lived Experience Advisors in MDRC’s Criminal Justice Research

Black man shares insights with diverse group of listeners
By Raul Armenta, Nicole Arzola, Erika B. Lewy, Alejo Rodriguez, Kyla Wasserman, Keri West

Because engaging people who are most affected by the systems and issues we study is an important priority, MDRC is piloting a Council of Lived Experience Advisors (CLEA). The CLEA is an advisory board composed of people who have firsthand experience with the criminal legal system that will guide MDRC’s research within its Center for Criminal Justice Research (CCJR).   

Lived experts are people who are directly affected by the conditions and systems researchers study—such as individuals or families enrolled in a program of interest, practitioners who work directly with them, and community leaders. CLEAs provide researchers with specialized expertise about the systems with which they have personal experience.

This pilot allows MDRC to learn how to coordinate and learn effectively from a group of lived experts convened around a particular research domain, as well as to better understand how lived expert councils can make our research more actionable and relevant to the communities we study. The CCJR CLEA will provide researchers access to the advice of lived experts at any stage of the research process, such as writing proposals, developing research and instrument designs, interpreting results, and sharing findings. It will also provide guidance on CCJR’s broader goals and strategy.

How a CLEA Can Bolster Research 

Over the past five years, MDRC researchers have increased their use of advisory councils for specific studies. Researchers reflected that these opportunities helped them create interview guides that were more perceptive, helped them interpret findings more accurately, and helped recommend engagement strategies that are more likely to work for participants. Advisory councils have both improved the rigor of the research and made it more responsive to the needs and experiences of communities who take part in MDRC studies.

While councils for specific studies have been valuable to MDRC, many decisions about research routinely take place before lived experts can be convened by a project. Practical and ethical considerations often require that certain decisions happen early in the research process, such as when writing proposals, designing study plans, and making submissions to research ethics and government oversight boards. Research teams may not get the benefit of the insights of lived experts in the initial development of projects, where research questions and priorities are typically determined. Projects that do not have the budgeted resources for an advisory council or funders who are willing to support the engagement of lived experts may similarly miss out.

To address these challenges, MDRC is piloting the use of a standing advisory council for the CCJR. CCJR researchers will have access to the advice of lived experts throughout the research development and implementation process. For example, researchers will be able to consult with the CLEA to identify research priorities in a proposal, determine what subjects to ask about in surveys, offer feedback on the interpretation of findings, and decide how to share the findings.

About the CCJR CLEA Pilot

The pilot is being codesigned by Alejo Rodriguez, a lecturer at Columbia Law School, and a group of researchers at MDRC who have a range of personal and professional ties to the criminal legal system (from no direct experience to supporting a loved one who has been incarcerated). Rodriguez has developed a course in which individuals who have been incarcerated and students at Columbia Law School work together on projects that aim to advance people-centered systems change.

Our approach will initially emphasize the following principles. (As we work with the CLEA advisors, these principles may evolve.)

  • People with lived expertise in the systems and programs that we study have valuable insights about those systems. When researchers study a program or a system, they often have much more information about the intent behind the program’s or system’s design than they do about how it is experienced by the end users. Lived experts offer insight into parts of a system that researchers and policymakers may not otherwise see or understand.
  • Engaging lived experts at all stages of the research process can lead to more rigorous and relevant research. Engaging lived experts early and often allows them to weigh in at critical moments of a project from start to finish.
  • All research projects can benefit from having access to the knowledge and expertise offered by people with lived experience. 
  • Research plans and protocols may change because of the input of lived experts. Research teams should plan accordingly to allow enough flexibility to be responsive.
  • Relationships among MDRC researchers and lived experts should be mutual, and both groups should benefit from the interaction. This means building genuine and authentic relationships among researchers and lived experts, as well as exploring how MDRC’s research and resources can benefit lived experts in addition to acknowledging the value lived experts bring to MDRC’s work.

The pilot is taking place in three phases:

  • Phase 1: Planning: The first phase of the project focuses on designing the pilot, identifying CCJR’s needs that the CLEA could support, building project team capacity, and identifying a partner to advise on the design and implementation of the council.  
  • Phase 2: Pilot implementation: The second phase of the project includes orientations and meetings with the CLEA advisors and CCJR researchers. It will also include assessment about whether and how the pilot is meeting its goals.  
  • Phase 3: Learning and integration: The final phase focuses on synthesizing the lessons from the planning and implementation periods to develop guidance and recommendations that can help other MDRC departments launch CLEAs.  
Armenta, Raul, Nicole Arzola, Erika B. Lewy, Alejo Rodriguez, Kyla Wasserman, and Keri West. 2023. “Centering the Insights of Lived Experience Advisors in MDRC’s Criminal Justice Research.” New York: MDRC.