Emily Baxter is the Creator and Director of We Are All Criminals
, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that seeks to inspire empathy and ignite social change through personal stories of crime, privilege, justice, and injustice, disrupting the barriers that separate us. Through their stories, participants recall crimes they committed for which they were never caught and consider how different their lives might have been had they acquired a publicly accessible record of the incident. The purpose of the project is to question what it means to be a “criminal” and challenge the value of a record in assessing character and directing policy, when truly we are all criminals. Through this project, Baxter is seeking to raise awareness about the sometimes debilitating effects of the collateral consequences of criminal convictions, and how different life can turn out for people who have committed crimes but were never caught.
Baxter believes that criminality is not an “us versus them” situation. “One in four people in the United States has a criminal record,” she has explained
. “In many jurisdictions those arrests are both public and permanent. It doesn’t matter if you do your time behind bars or in the community or even if you serve time at all. Really what matters is if you have a publicly accessible criminal record or publicly accessible juvenile record. In this data and electronic age, that can create an indelible print upon the ether than cannot be scrubbed away.”
This project looks at the other 75% without a permanent record: those who have had the luxury of living without an official reminder of a past mistake. Participants in We Are All Criminals tell stories of crimes they got away with. The participants are doctors and lawyers, social workers and students, retailers and retirees who consider how very different their lives could have been had they been caught. The stories are of youth, boredom, intoxication, and porta potties. They are humorous, humiliating, and humbling in turn. They are privately held memories without public stigma; they are criminal histories without criminal records.
We Are All Criminals seeks to challenge society’s perception of what it means to
be a criminal and how much weight a record should be given. But it is also a commentary on the disparate impact of our nation’s policies, policing, and prosecution: many of the participants benefited from belonging to a class and race that is not overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Permanent and public criminal records perpetuate inequities, precluding millions of people from countless opportunities to move on and move up. We Are All Criminals questions the wisdom and fairness in those policies.
Baxter is a Fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. Prior to this, she served as the director of advocacy and public policy at the Council on Crime and Justice in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and as an assistant public defender at the Regional Native Public Defense Corporation representing indigent members of the Leech Lake and White Earth Bands of Ojibwe charged with crimes in Minnesota State court. Emily began developing We Are All Criminals through an Archibald Bush Leadership Fellowship in 2012.
Five Questions with Emily Baxter
What Makes You Come Alive?
People. Drawing out stories and echoing back the beauty of that recollection--be it a slice of victory or vulnerability or wonder. I love that moment when the person you're talking to suddenly becomes familiar: his eyes no longer remind you of another's--they're his alone; her voice is a voice no longer strange, but one now comfortably nestling into her own space in your brain. It's as if all of their features explode and in a moment rearrange themselves into something so wholly and holy themselves alone. I like taking photographs of people then, when my preconceptions drop and I can see a bit of their true and remarkable selves.<br /><br />This is what makes me come alive when interviewing "people who got away with it," "people who were caught," and all of the conversations in between.
Pivotal turning point in your life?
There have been countless moments in my life that have shaped (and continue to shape) me--like the roots and rocks along a creek's path to the ocean. But one conversation with one man in particular humbled and enraged me, shifting the way I viewed my legal advocacy and, more broadly, myself.<br /><br />I met Anthony at a legal clinic a few years ago when he was seeking a second chance--an expungement of a criminal record. I was embarrassingly dismissive of his concerns; it was only when he began to cry that I realized just how jaded and warped my view of redemption had become. <br /><br />We Are All Criminals is the result of a confluence of conversations, clients, frustrations, and events; one of the most powerful and important of those for me was that moment in that government center basement with Anthony.
An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?
When I was a public defender, I represented a young man on a probation violation. He was 19 and facing a prison sentence after drinking and driving; it was his third alcohol-related incident following a drunken fight at 15. The court (or any other government body or anyone else in a position of power for that matter) had never considered treatment--or even a chemical dependency assessment--despite this young man's obvious addiction. Instead, in my opinion, he was viewed from day-one as a throw-away. Over the course of several months of visiting my client in jail and speaking extensively with his mother, I came to care deeply for him and his family; after a while, he trusted me enough to not only tell me about his past, but his hopes for a future. So when the court ordered revocation--and prison--for my client, I couldn't begin to imagine his devastation. I turned to him to offer my sincerest apologies for failing to keep him home, but he spoke first: "I'm so sorry, Emily. This isn't your fault, it's mine." And with that, the bailiff took away one of the most generous, kind, mature, and humble people I've ever met.
One Thing On Your Bucket List?
I would like to advocate on behalf of an individual on death row.
One-line Message for the World?