Examining the luxury to forget
One in four people in the United States has a criminal record. A community presentation sponsored by the Conflict Resolution Center held at Denfeld High School on Sept. 30, "We Are All Criminals," looked at the 75 percent of people with criminal histories but no record. People who have had the luxury to forget their worst mistakes.
Armed with a projector, statistics and compelling photos and narratives, Emily Baxter, a former assistant public defender and policy change advocate, sought to start a discussion and challenge society's perception of what it means to be a criminal.
While working at a criminal record clinic in the Twin Cities, Baxter had an encounter which changed her focus. A young man she called Anthony approached her, looking for help seeing an expungement. When Baxter looked at his rap sheet and saw all he had on his record was a minor theft, she told him "even if the court doesn't expunge the matter, it's not like your life is over."
"And with that, Anthony began to cry. He told me that earlier that day he had considered taking his own life," Baxter said. "You see, what was just a thief to me, to Anthony was a lost job. It was missed house payments, skipped meals, door after door slammed in his face. It was the loss of respect from his friends and family. The loss of a sense of self. The loss of hope."
Inspired by this encounter, Baxter began digging into research on criminal histories and how criminal charges can affect people long after being released from prison. In 2012, she began thinking about people who have committed crimes but were never charged.
"For the past few years I've been asking people like me, the 75 percent who have criminal histories but no criminal records, what have you had the luxury to forget? What roles have race and class played in your ability to get away with it?" Baxter said.
She passed out her information on social networks and began to receive responses from people who have committed crimes but never got caught. She bought a camera and began interviewing people, first around the Minnesota, then around the country. The stories range from serious crimes such as gang violence to petty offenses such as stealing a library book. She asked people to consider what would have happened to them if they had been caught. How would their lives be different?
One story Baxter shared reached very close to home for the Duluthians. One man who encountered her social media post found himself very upset with the allegation that he was a criminal.
"He couldn't believe that some punk in the Cities was calling him a criminal just because he was a member of the human race. For the first three weeks, he said he would pick up his phone and dial all but the last three digits of my number to call me up and ream me out," Baxter said.
But when he eventually called, he decided to participate. He remembered that he used to run drugs across Lake Superior when he was in college.
"How do you forget something like that? When you think of drug trafficking as something between strangers in darkened alleyways, not something that happens between college friends," Baxter said.
Once he realized he'd committed a crime, Baxter said the man began to unravel and noticed how different his life would have been if he had been caught.
"He wouldn't have finished college. He wouldn't have started his first internship, where he met his wife. And he wouldn't have his two sons. Or if he did, he wouldn't have been able to do fatherly things like volunteer for their hockey team," Baxter said.
Baxter has complied about 250 photos and stories from people with criminal histories, but no official records. Most of them can be found on her website, weareallcriminals.org. The photos are taken in a way that reveals a personality and individuality but without identity. People are identified on the website by their titles and their potential charges.
Following her presentation, Duluthians were asked to gather in small groups for discussion.
One participant brought up how she knew her boss would never hire someone with a criminal record.
"Yeah, but she could be hiring someone with a criminal history. They just didn't get caught because of their privilege," said attendee Jackie Falk.
"I'm definitely going to be thinking about this for a long time," said attendee Terresa Hardaway. "Things like this are going to be what helps us change the system. We need to spread awareness."