A man holding a placard that reads "Teen Thief"

Perhaps you’ve driven home drunk once or twice. Or maybe you sold weed to your high school classmates. Or stole a pair of sneakers. But you were never caught. How did your life turn out differently than someone who was caught and now has a record? That’s the basis of Emily Baxter’s project “We Are All Criminals.” The former public defender interviewed 250 people nationwide about their crimes and shares what she discovered about race, chance, and justice.

Emily Baxter, director, "We Are All Criminals" project; fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School's Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice

  • Reverend Lurlean Tucker

    I certainly understand Ms. Baxter’s point. No one is perfectly innocent, and the criminal justice system is biased and full of corruption. However, it’s wrong to claim we’re all criminals. I resent that label! Many of us go to great lengths to avoid wrongdoing and to correct the errors that others make. Not to brag, but the only thing I ever stole was a doughnut. I’ve never driven drunk, smoked dope (much less sold any), or cheated in class.

    • Denise Woodall

      drove 20mph over the speed limit? drank underage? took a prescription that wasn’t yours? carried prescription not in the bottle? yelled at someone? kept something you found, took office supplies for home use? If not, it’s ok…then you fit right in with the 1% of students that I have surveyed who don’t register on a criminal activities checklist. 99% of my students are criminals. We have selective memories….dig deep into your past, because any law broken over the age of 14 is subject to be punished in adult court. In the age of hyper-incarceration, these explorations of our behavior and our own past is an important project to challenge the narratives of difference between society’s manufactured criminals and ourselves that we vehemently defend, we think we are so different from them – get honest- what we mean is – better than. what do you have the luxury of forgetting? And if you are the 1%, what do we do with the rest of us, should we all turn ourselves in? This whole concept is a good exercise in thinking about how we would have liked ourselves to be treated – what would have been “justice” for our crime? and does that fit the concept of “justice” we apply to others? Perhaps it’s just food for thought or perhaps it’s material for shaking up our illusory constructions of difference that justify the violence of incarceration we have continued to support.

      • MonkInSF

        If what you said is true, the future of the US is in danger. Where are the parents?

        • Gene Keenan

          I don’t think so. Just life on planet earth. It’s the same with every generation.

  • MonkInSF

    I have never driven home drunk. I never stole anything from anyone. I never sold drugs to anyone. PERIOD. No one is perfect. Law is the bottom line. It is a line that most people never cross.

    • thucy

      I never did those things, either. But something tells me you’re exercising selective memory if you think you never committed a crime. Pretty sure you managed a few traffic scofflaws, tax cheats, what-have-you.

      • MonkInSF

        That is you who does all these. Not everyone. Tax cheat? I am not among the 47% who do not turn in any tax. I am not the one who brag about the ultra low tax rate and shouted “increase my tax rate.”

        • Eric Westby

          Perhaps your post is just intended as trolling, but I can’t let you repeat the scurrilous lie that there are “47% who do not turn in any tax.” That is a lie. 47% of the population makes so little income and/or have such high federal deductions that they effectively pay no federal income tax, but they still generally pay thousands in social security and medicare taxes, sales taxes, and state taxes.

  • Mjhmjh

    I’m far more concerned about those who DO get caught, but suffer almost no consequences for their crimes, because they have money or can pull strings. (eg The recent case of attorney Spencer Freeman Smith, who killed a cyclist, drove home and hid his expensive car and – three years later – ended up with a mere misdemeanor and the likelihood of being able to continue his LEGAL career, virtually unscathed.)

  • jurgispilis

    There a disparities in the application of justice.

    One abusive is sex crimes. There are some very mild offenses, that are labeled as sex crimes and ruins many lives. Examples such as a 16 year old boy having sex with a 15 year old girl, peeing in public, etc.
    And then there are hate crimes. I don’t believe the phase “No more Chinese” is a hate crime. After all, some of our presidential candidates have said “No more Mexicans”, and nothing happened to them.

    • Another Mike

      True that any intercourse between youth under 18 is at least a misdemeanor offense in California. But for peeing in public to be a sexual offense, it has to be “willful and lewd,” and must take place where others could see the private parts.

  • fakeanonymousguest

    How may people in her study did get a second chance but then offended and were caught again?

  • Another Mike

    The US incarceration rate is back to the levels (prisoner/crime committed) seen in the 1950s and 1960s. The problem is that a great many more behaviors — especially related to drugs — have been defined as crimes since then.

  • Jonnie

    Emily…welcome to the real world…did you just find out the world isn’t fair and thought to write a book about it?

    Most inane guest on Forum in a long time.

  • 1PeterDuMont2STARALLIANCE8

    What came up for me in response to Ms. Baxter’s project title, “We Are All Criminals,” was reflecting on collective responsibility for many of the conditions and decisions that afflict society.

    In honor of veterans everywhere on this U.S. Veterans’ Day, I feel a duty to cite a case in point, not only about crime but about war.

    How many recall that shortly before the March 19th, 2003 invasion of Iraq, CBS journalist Dan Rather and his team courageously interviewed Saddam Hussein in Baghdad? [The interview was taped February 24th, 2003, and aired by CBS in the United States on February 26th.] Toward the end of the interview, Saddam, then-leader of a comparatively stable, if also undemocratic and repressed Iraqi society, invited U.S. President George W. Bush to a televised debate. Saddam wanted to discuss major issues in front of a global public audience. The CBS transcript link, section three, is: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-saddam-interview-part-3/

    Looking back, many might agree; What a missed opportunity! Even though Saddam could correctly be described as a lying, brutish dictator and aggressor up to that point (Iraq-Iran war: 1980—1988; Kuwait invasion, 1990); the fact is, as we all know: in 2003 he was holding a culturally unstable Iraqi society together, and he had no hidden weapons of mass destruction as accused.

    Saddam’s offer to debate President Bush was not accepted, as we also know and starting March 19th, 2003, a U.S.-led coalition of forces went to war with heavy and very costly consequences to all. Aside from the huge numbers of Iraqis killed (some estimate over a million; and possibly multiples of that from lack of water and electricity for civilians after bombs destroyed vital infrastructure) — aside from over 66,000 U.S. losses in Iraq (not to mention coalition losses — all parties are still paying and will be paying a heavy human and economic cost in caring for wounded and traumatized veterans.

    What does it take to motivate us and other countries to aggressively try other, peaceful ways with some of the same resources, or simply harnessing existing media organs? I would welcome direct participation in a publicly broadcast debate over the feasibility of attempts at broadcast people-to-people conflict resolution and transformation tries! I believe we can generate creative responses to most if not all substantive objections and keeping it up our efforts in this regard until We, the People of the World, succeed.

    It is a clear moral responsibility of states to exhaust nonviolent alternatives to war before resorting to violence as a last resort. We should use the people-to-people; leaders-to-leaders broadcast approach to cut short existing wars, such as that in Syria now, and simmering conflicts before they explode.

    Obviously, we did not exhaust the possibilities with Saddam. It’s easy to point an accusatory finger at then-U.S. President George W. Bush alone for refusing to debate and perpetrating the invasion. But the drums of war had been beating for many months by that time. He was not alone. 70% of the U.S. House and Senate voted to allow use of force on Presidential authority on October 10-11, 2002, five months before.

    How many of us citizens took any action at all when we had the chance in the year prior to the invasion?

    Many citizens did try of course, to protest peacefully, but the impressive mass marches were not heeded by those in power. Many more took little or no action, or it can be argued: did not act as dynamically or righteously as they could have.

    I, for one, remember wanting deeply to write a policy advisory directly to President Bush during the months preceding the war, but to my knowledge, I did not. As it was, I wrote to Saddam Hussein just as the Dan Rather interview was being taped. My letter and faxes are dated February 24th-25th, 2003, with copies sent to President Bush and several other high U.S. and U.N. officials. But it was not enough. In my files at this writing, I have found only a draft letter to President Bush, dated the day before the invasion. I’m so sorry, people, that I didn’t get my job done sooner.

    Why did I not write earlier? Well, I remember being utterly overwhelmed during that period with accumulated issues connected by Economic Discrimination Before the Law, a major sleeping civil rights issue.

    More specifically: I had not been able to afford or otherwise secure legal representation in several civil legal cases where my nonprofit educational organization and/or myself had been cheated in different ways of money, vital energy, focus, and irreplaceable time. I was existing during those months prior to the invasion in a state of chronic overwhelm and economic desperation accumulated from otherwise separate incidents which had occurred in 1995-’96, 1997, and 1998, respectively. These severely hampered my ability as a nonprofit leader of good will, peace philosophy, and public education to sustain focus on organizing my thoughts and actions into the important policy advisory I had wanted to write for months prior to the invasion.

    Some of President Bush’s public statements shortly after the indirect communications I did make in late February indicated to me that he had heard my message, and that it had a salutary effect. But alas, it was not enough. The awful machinery of war had gone too far already, and my efforts at the time were too weak.

    If I had been stronger and earlier, I felt, it might well have helped prevent the invasion by lighting up the other path.

    Where does responsibility for my inability to act effectively in the months prior to the invasion of Iraq truly lie? • With me alone? Despite my own shortcomings, I think surely not. • With my associates, adult siblings, and friends (none of whom, I fear, realized the importance of helping me more at various times during the months and years prior? Yes, partially, I believe. • With various individuals and entities who had in common only that they had cheated me and our organization between 1995 and 1998 (and in one case continuing?) Significantly, each and all. • With the government agency that refused to appoint legal representation when strenuously petitioned in 2002? Interesting! (Too bad there was no precedent, to my knowledge, for appointing counsel; and that the agency turned a blind eye to our petition which had cited Constitutional ideals.) • With the entire system that leaves the poor unrepresented in the great majority of civil cases in spite our national ideals of “Equal Protection Under the Laws?” — a system which fails to guarantee a CIVIL RIGHT TO COUNSEL to all citizens who must bring a legal complaint? Most definitely. (Our U.S. system, since 1963, does at least provide minimal counsel for needy people accused of a crime; but not for civil complaints or defenses.)

    Definitely, yes, the system….But not solely! My point here is: major events in nations and world can be, and are: influenced by the ripple effects of single acts, of single individuals and entities as well as by broad public policies.

    Conclusion: Treat your family members, friends, and neighbors well…even as you would treat yourself.

    For each of you, Citizens of America and the World, can matter to all of us. Based on my/our experience/s just touched upon here, I feel I can assure you of this.

    • MonkInSF

      Stealing from hardworking 7-11 owner or selling drogs to one’s classmates are treating the victims well?

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