This guest post comes from Emily Baxter, the genius (we would suggest!) behind a website in the USA which has found an innovative and engaging way to challenge the ‘othering’ of people with convictions…
One in four people in the United States has a criminal record. Due to deep and undeniable race and class disparities that permeate every stage of our criminal and juvenile justice systems, people of color, indigenous people, and poor people are more likely to carry that burden than their white, affluent counterparts. Records can stymie housing, employment, licensure, travel, civic participation and more. Permanently and publicly labeled ‘criminals,’ millions of already marginalized Americans find themselves locked out of countless opportunities to move on and move up.
One in four people has a criminal record; four in four have a criminal history.
I created a multi-media-based project that contends just that: We Are All Criminals uses first-person storytelling and compelling photography to call out the concepts of criminality, privilege, and punishment that have dominated our public discourse and private thought for decades.
WAAC is a storybank of people who have gotten away with crimes—predominately white and affluent ‘upstanding citizens’—who consider what life would be like had they been caught. These stories are juxtaposed with stories of people who were caught engaging in the same behavior, but who, tethered to their pasts, don’t have the luxury to forget.
I share these stories with the people that need to hear them most: lawyers, peace officers, policymakers, service providers, employers, and more—people who sit in judgement of others—and students of those disciplines. My hope is that once people can acknowledge a shared criminality, they can better appreciate a common humanity.
While WAAC touches upon many sociological themes, the ability to contextualize one’s own behavior is one of my favorites. When crime is a private memory rather than a public record, it’s easy to justify the behavior. I was young; I was drunk; I was stupid; I was in a bad relationship; no one got hurt; I gave it back anyway; it wasn’t my idea.
When sharing these stories, I ask audiences to recognize the context they allow their private memories, and understand that the same context may have existed for someone who was caught. I stress, time and again, that crime is an event in a life course: it’s something someone does, not who someone is.
That is, I have committed theft, but I am not forever a thief.
Or, in the words of WAAC’s participants:
TEACHER: THEFT, TRESPASSING, POSSESSION OF CONTROLLED SUBSTANCES, DRIVING WHILE INTOXICATED
We did it for the moment, for the thrill. But I never thought I’m a bad guy. If you come to think of yourself as criminal, you’ve passed a threshold. You get onto a trajectory that’s a bad path. Thankfully, I wasn’t caught and I didn’t consider myself bad– nor did others.
Experimenting with delinquency is normal – and so is giving it up. How many kids get a police record, or a longer record, for the same or even fewer criminal acts my friends and I did?
I have that story. Everybody has that story. If you find someone who claims they’ve never committed a crime, either they’re lying, they have a poor memory, or they’re very abnormal.
LIBRARIAN: BURGLARY, INTERFERENCE WITH TRANSIT OPERATOR
In my growing up, the whole social attitude toward juvenile behavior was very different than it seems to be now. I mean, I’m confident that some of the stunts that we pulled as kids— if we did the same things now, we would be in the court system and probably incarcerated faster than we could blink.
SOCIAL WORKER: ASSAULT
Looking back, I can contextualize it. I was lost and wanted to be accepted. I lacked self-confidence and self-worth. I was easily influenced by people around me. that person who tipped the porta potty, that wasn’t me, but I didn’t know that then.
VICTIM’S ADVOCATE: BURGLARY, UNDERAGE CONSUMPTION
You know what’s interesting? These were transferable skills.
The plotting, attention to detail, execution, delayed gratification, and, hey, even an interest in criminology. Maybe it’s no surprise that we are now police chiefs, college professors, coaches, nurses, and victims’ advocates.
FINANCIAL COMPLIANCE MANAGER: AIDED AND ABETTED INSURANCE FRAUD, ARSON
You know, if I’d been caught, I’d just be getting out. I wouldn’t have this job now. I would not have met my husband. Everything that I have in life, it’s been since then. What if that were taken away from me? What if I never had it?
PROGRAM DEVELOPER: THEFT, INDECENT EXPOSURE, MINOR CONSUMPTION, FALSE IDENTIFICATION, POSSESSION OF MARIJUANA
It’s crazy. I’m having trouble remembering things that I did that were illegal, I just don’t think about it.
You know, with the college mindset, you do these things that in the morning are a funny story—nothing you think of as illegal.
Overall, I suppose I’ve done some pretty stupid things—but none of it defines who I am.
HIRING MANAGER: TERRORISTIC THREATS, MANUFACTURING OF EXPLOSIVE DEVICES, ASSAULT
This story isn’t about bad things I got away with; it’s about being a kid and the presumption of innocence that a lot of people don’t ever get.
Once there’s a record, every youthful misadventure adds further proof that you need more punishment.
To read these stories in full, find more, and perhaps share your own, head to weareallcriminals.org. If you’re interested in learning more about the project or hosting a WAAC talk, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.