Speaker: Emily Baxter

We Are All Criminals

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.

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