Rosenblum: ‘We Are All Criminals’ is a hard look at those not caught
- Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM
- Star Tribune
- October 23, 2013 - 8:36 PM
Jeana Raines got her life back on Tuesday, as the Minnesota Board of Pardons wisely forgave and erased long-ago transgressions. The mother of three has since paid restitution for check forgery and earned two college degrees.
The story of Raines and six other Minnesotans, also pardoned, couldn’t come at a more fitting hour. Because also this week, hundreds of other Minnesotans will humbly recall past criminal acts.
We need only look in the mirror to see them.
Like Raines, these Minnesotans broke the law, some by selling drugs, others by arson or indecent exposure. Unlike Raines, they never got caught, thus granted the freedom to mature and move into full adult lives to test their infinite potential.
This stark unfairness has gnawed at Emily Baxter, 35, since she was a little girl growing up with a mother who drove a bookmobile and a father who taught vocational skills and volunteered regularly in their small community.
With a two-year Bush Foundation Fellowship, Baxter, a lawyer with the Council on Crime and Justice, has created a brave and provocative project launching Thursday. Its title: “We Are All Criminals.”
The project features cryptic photographs and brief mea culpas written by many of this community’s upstanding citizens — pediatricians, lawyers, teachers, business professionals — all of whom committed crimes as juveniles. None is identified.
If one in four Minnesotans has a criminal record, Baxter calls this group “the other 75 percent.” She also calls them us. You haven’t ever committed a crime? Keep thinking.
“Women start by minimizing,” Baxter said. They retell “funny stories” mitigated by the light of day. Some men are offended by her implication, until a long-stuffed memory pushes forward. “Then they end up remembering others.”
Baxter isn’t pointing fingers, nor is she making light of criminal behavior. She is hoping to bring urgent attention to the cracks in our justice system that devour too many.
“I’m not saying criminal records should be abolished,” Baxter said, “but they’re doing far more harm than good.”
Michael Friedman is captivated by Baxter’s project. As executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, Friedman sees these very inequities played out daily.
“I don’t think I’ve come across anybody who has not committed crimes as a juvenile,” Friedman said. “Allowing society to use juvenile criminal records as a marker for someone’s potential success, or risk for employment or opportunity, is not scientific. It’s dangerous and discriminatory.”
Baxter earned her law degree in 2007 from the University of St. Thomas School of Law. She clerked briefly for a judge, then joined the Regional Native Public Defense Corp., advising members of the Leech Lake and White Earth tribes. She saw too many 19-year-olds who were already “well-worn veterans of the criminal justice system,” she said, their lives derailed by even minor offenses.
She took her concerns to the Council on Crime and Justice, cutting her hours there to pursue the fellowship.
Her interest isn’t solely professional. Baxter admits to “a relatively minor criminal record” from another state. But the offense never stopped her from working later as a judicial clerk, she noted.
“That record has not haunted me or stood in my way,” she said. “So I didn’t have to remember it. How many people,” she wondered, “are taking themselves out of the running?”
Baxter honed her photography skills and took a writing class at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. “It was fantastic trying out different voices,” she said, “but what I hope comes across is not my voice, but the voices of the people I interviewed.”
She’s up to 200 interviews, spending about two hours with each participant and tightening their stories to four or five paragraphs. Fifty-five stories are featured on her website, www.weareallcriminals.com, which goes live at 7 p.m. on Oct. 24.
She photographed people in their kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms, holding signs in front of their faces or obscured in other ways. Included is a pediatrician who, as a teenager, made homemade napalm and blew up a port-a-potty in the woods.
In another profile, an attorney holds up a chalkboard: “Aided & Abetted Drug Sale.”
“I can’t tell you how many background checks my name has been run through in the last year,” he said, “but I can tell you how very relieved I am knowing that each time it will come back clean.”
Reactions by participants have varied. “Some have said it’s been good to talk about it,” Baxter said. Others, “are rocked by this and not in a good way.” They contact Baxter to ask if they might get together again, “so that you can see I’m not that person anymore. They’re in deep psychic pain,” she said, “knowing that at least one person knows their story and has put it into words that make them sound like a criminal.”
Baxter hopes her project will give them comfort, and will lead to an end of the “criminal-vs.-non-criminal dichotomy,” so that others not as lucky as they may move forward, too.
“We need to give people second chances,” she said. “We need to stop perpetually punishing people.”
The public is invited to the launch of “We Are All Criminals,” at 5 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Belmore/New Skyway Lounge, 25 N. 4th St., Minneapolis. A brief program begins at 6:30 p.m.
© 2013 Star Tribune