At the 2012 COD Conference, Minnesota State Public Defender John Stuart mentioned a project called “We Are All Criminals” that I wanted to promote through the NAPD network. The premise is this: “1 in 4 people in the US has a criminal record. But what about the other 75|PERCENT|? This project is about the ones that got away, and how very different their lives may have been if they had been caught.”

I don’t think of myself as a criminal, but I am – I just haven’t been apprehended. In fact, I have committed so many crimes, I can’t even remember them all. It’s almost embarrassing to admit, but the stories so compellingly archived at jogged me into remembering. I did that, and that, and that… Am I a good person? I make a deliberate, constantly-reflecting effort to be. I know right from wrong, hate hurting people’s feelings, always say I am sorry… and obviously I am unfailingly honest, so openly confessing. Ha ha. But good person notwithstanding, in the eyes of the law on its technical merits, I am a criminal. And we know, sometimes "little things" can have major consequences, like the loss of liberty and a host of continuing consequences.

We Are All Criminals exposes all of us – high school principals, elected officials, bank presidents, civic award winners, public defender-types – in solidarity with indigent defendants. You often hear the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I…” and this site shows you exactly what it looks like. Sometimes it’s a hard sell, but the We Are All Criminals site does an exemplary job.

Many of the crimes that people commit and get away with (just like ones that people get caught for) don’t make any sense. People don’t really know why they did it, they aren’t really sorry they did it, and they – not being caught – don’t really remember much about it. The crime does not “define” them, nor does it derail their hopes and dreams.  Some of us have the luxury to forget. Sometimes the luxury is even more brazen – the luxury to know we’ll get away.

In 2005 my car was stolen and not recovered. I sent the police report to the OMV and my insurance agency like I was supposed to since I couldn’t return the physical plates (the thieves weren’t thoughtful enough to leave them for me). But then some button didn’t get pushed somewhere and in my new car (insured, of course) there was a period of about 6 months when I got pulled over almost weekly on a data-flag for having no insurance. It was a drag, because it often made me late, but I wasn’t nervous. I am white, college-educated, I wear the dorkiest glasses when I drive, and my car is a minivan. No sweat.

According to the Sentencing Project, as a white woman I have a 1 in 111 chance of getting a record in my lifetime. If I were Latino, it’d be 1 in 45. Black? 1 in 18. Male? 1 in 9. Black man? 1 in 3. For a black man in America, I would imagine every contact with the police creates cause to sweat. Those aren’t odds to play.

The ‘We Are All Criminals’ project takes a different look at facts and figures that we all know. It tells a common story from the opposite side. In some cases, there’s the story of the person who “got away” held up in parallel to the story of the guy who didn’t. When project Director Emily Baxter does that, you can see what a fork in the road is created by contact with the justice system. Here’s a great case in point.

It is at this fork in the road that the public defender has so much opportunity.

There are three ways to help out the We Are All Criminals Project:

First, send in your parallel stories. You’ve witnessed the havoc wreaked on someone’s life because of a criminal record; if your client’s story would juxtapose against one of the “ones who got away” who are featured on We Are All Criminals site, send it to Emily!

Second, bring ‘We Are All Criminals’ to your state. Have an upcoming conference or event where We Are All Criminals could be a good fit? Contact Emily to talk about collaborations. 

Finally, the project is a work in progress, and always developing. It is richer for your feedback! Let Emily know what you think.

We Are All Criminals:

Project Director Emily Baxter: