We are all criminals

One in four people in the U.S. has a criminal record -- a record that can have long-lasting effects on a person’s employment, educational and housing prospects, not to mention the consequent social stigma.

But what about the other 75 percent of the population -- those who have, in all likelihood, committed a crime at some point in their life without getting caught? From petty crimes to felonies, from one-time mistakes to serial offenses, most Americans have committed crime with impunity.

That discrepancy is the motivating principle behind We Are All Criminals (WAAC), a documentary policy project that exists as “a catalyst for conversation about race, class, crime, punishment, and second chances,” according to Emily Baxter, WAAC Director and former Fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. Baxter will share insights from her research at the AACRAO Annual Meeting in April.

“I have examples of doctors, lawyers, professors, students, policy makers, and police officers who got away with crimes, and whose lives would be dramatically and likely negatively changed if they’d been burdened with a criminal record,” Baxter said. “And I compared these to my former [criminal defense] clients who were caught engaging in the same behaviors, but who will forever be judged and disadvantaged by their criminal record.”

WAAC uses these stories to raise consciousness about the role of privilege in how we view our criminal histories and encourage dialogue about the collateral, often unseen, consequences of a criminal record.

Checking a box can have a chilling effect

Many higher education institutions take criminal history into account during the application process. For example, the Common App asks whether the applicant has ever been convicted or adjudicated delinquent. These questions and related laws and policies can hinder educational access to people with criminal records, who are disproportionately poor people and people of color.

“Even though colleges will tell you that the answer to that question is only one part of a larger algorithm [to determine whether an applicant is accepted], it can have a chilling effect,” Baxter said. “Fearing that your access to education will be reduced to that yes-or-no question--not to mention that you have to pay to apply only to be denied.”

However, research shows that access to educational opportunities can be the greatest determining factor in reducing recidivism and have incredible, positive effects on an individual, family, and the broader community.

What if you had been caught?

Baxter’s work invites the fortunate, even privileged, majority--the 75 percent of people in America never caught--to reflect on their own criminality.

She says:

It’s an opportunity to ask people to consider their own privilege, to see what their own role has been in a [criminal justice] system that they may otherwise feel no connection with, and to ask what life might have been like had they been caught.

Often there’s a visceral reaction to the idea of a criminal--a pushback or fear. That’s entirely reasonable. But many of us don’t realize that we have all committed crimes. Some serious, some petty, some decades ago, some last night, some just once, some over and over again, some we’ve completely forgotten. Some people are proud of the things they’ve gotten away with. Others are deeply ashamed.

When we look at the way policies, policing and prosecution work, there’s an undeniable and unconscionable disparate impact on people of color. Those of us not in marginalized populations are getting away with these crimes, and we get to view them as learning opportunities: “It happened because I was young/drunk/stupid/in a bad relationship.” But the justifications we employ regarding our own crimes are not available to those who have been caught.

So, when standing in judgment of another person – someone who was caught -- we must first reflect on our own criminal history. What if the circumstances were flipped, and it was you checking the box saying you were a criminal?

How can you, in the position of authority you’re in now, create a second chance for those who have been caught?

Upcoming webinar

Join Baxter for a discussion about college access, criminal and academic records, and social justice during a free webinar on Wednesday, May 31 at 2 PM ET.