Emily Baxter is on the road, driving home a message to prosecutors and law enforcement officials, politicians and business leaders, students and book clubs. None of us is free of a criminal past, she argues. But most of us have been granted, by luck of birth or privilege, “the luxury to forget” our transgressions.
As founding director of the Twin Cities-based nonprofit We Are All Criminals and author of a new book by the same name, Baxter urges us to remember those misdeeds. Because only after a candid personal accounting can we begin to eliminate the polarizing and punishing “us vs. them” dynamic that defines our criminal justice system.
We caught up with Baxter, formerly a lawyer with the now defunct Minneapolis-based Council on Crime and Justice, to ask about second chances, Porta-Potty explosions and reactions to her provocative book. She’s now living in North Carolina.
Q: You’re frequently quoted saying that one in four adults has a criminal record, but four in four adults have a criminal history. Why is this so important to you to emphasize?
A: You have to break down the mental barrier people throw up to separate themselves from criminality. “But, I’m not that person!” It starts with people who have claimed no personal stake in the game taking a deep look at themselves, examining their own privilege.
Q: In other words, they are — we are — that person. What kind of offenses are you talking about?
A: Sometimes it’s relatively petty — shoplifting at age 10. It’s jaywalking, speeding, underage drinking. I love doing that exercise with groups because it’s the first step toward a conversation. I’ll ask, “So, how did you get that alcohol?” Then, “You probably committed a crime by using a fake I.D., and maybe another crime for public urination.”
The key to the exercise is not just relaying the things you got away with. It’s not just voyeuristic. It’s unpacking the privilege in not being caught and all the privileges you’ve received since for not being punished for it.
Q: But you don’t advocate a get-tough-on-crime approach, either.
A: We, as a society, must prevent harm when we can and respond when we can’t. But criminal records can reroute and, in many ways, destroy your life. I certainly wouldn’t encourage lawlessness, but our criminal code is so overbroad that it is truly impossible to navigate the landscape without violating it from time to time. The response must be reasonable, rational, equitable. And it must be merciful. Those are four things just lacking in our current justice system.
Q: You’ve conducted well over 400 interviews since beginning this passion project in 2012, with many intimate stories featured in your book: The mechanical engineer who sold drugs to pay his college tuition. The grade school teacher who was stoned in class. The deacon who was never arrested for disorderly conduct. The shoplifting prosecutor. Why do you think they confessed to you?
A: People were incredibly generous to have given me their stories with humor and humility and trust. It’s this wonderful thing. Sometimes, it’s cathartic. Sometimes, it’s curiosity. It is not hard to find them. And it’s easier to recall and relay offenses that are at arm’s length — where they can point back to a time distinctly different from now.
Q: Sometimes their catharsis is delayed.
A: Yes. One of my absolute favorite moments came a few years back when a woman learned about my work with We Are All Criminals and said she didn’t know anyone like that. A few months later, I ran into her again and she told me that she had decided to tell her husband of 18 years something she had done at age 18 that had carried so much shame for her. She had never told anybody. He wrapped her in his arms and said, “Why would you think I would not accept you?” Two decades of burden dissolved.
Q: As you travel countrywide, you’ve found that law enforcement groups and prosecutors are a hard sell. Why do you think that is?
A: Some do initially have a negative and visceral response. The name itself, We Are All Criminals, is intentionally provocative. For those with a mental barricade between their present and their history, you have to kind of pepper the conversation with something that might take seed. Sometimes, an hour or a week or months later, they come back and say, “Yeah, I forgot that time I blew up a Porta-Potty.”
Q: Let’s talk about those who were caught, who were punished, often for the same or similar offenses as the many others who got away with a slap on the hand, if that. Throughout your book, you sprinkle “Parallel Stories” juxtaposed with “Luxury to Forget” stories on the same page. What’s one that stands out?
A: A woman made a habit of stealing from a pizza-by-the-slice place on her college campus. She never got caught. Today she’s a program developer. Another college student — overworked, underpaid and hungry — swiped two chicken wings from a salad bar near campus in 2003. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft, lost his security job and has struggled to this day to find full-time employment.
Q: How do you measure success in this work?
A: A lot of it is anecdotal — people coming up after a talk or e-mailing me to share how their views on those with criminal records have changed. But, also, those who have been caught or accused, or those with family members who have, tell me how important and humanizing the work is. It’s a catalyst for conversation and a catalyst for empathy.
There’s a reason why the book is so heavy and why the website keeps growing.