In 2007, when Emily Baxter was an assistant public defender at Leech Lake reservation, she realized the unfairness of the U.S. criminal justice system. “I found that even when I had secured good dispositions [the term used for sentences of juveniles] for my clients, their records were still debilitating them,” she says. “These criminal records were locking them out of countless opportunities.”
Having a criminal record meant Baxter’s clients’ lives were entirely changed, from lack of access to education, to housing, to getting a job, to the ability to travel.
Later, when Baxter left Leech Lake to work at the Council on Crime and Justice in Minneapolis, she had illuminating conversations with landlords, employers, and others who were in a position to be gatekeepers of discrimination against people with criminal records. In those conversations, she asked people about their own criminal activity, for which they never served any consequences.
“There was this huge disconnect in the conversations I was having with people [in positions of power] and the reality of people living under the shadow of a criminal record,” she says.
Those discussions were the beginning of project called “We Are All Criminals,” in which Baxter flips the script on criminal justice. “I’m turning the mirror to the decision makers themselves,” she says. “Let’s talk about you. What would life be like for you if you were defined by your mistakes?”
Baxter collected more than 400 stories. Some are confessional — telling elaborate tales of stealing cars, vandalism, drug use, and assault — by people that never got caught, or were caught and easily released. Others reveal how devastating it is to be one of the 65-100 million people in the U.S. with a criminal record.
She began to use photography as a tool to pair images with the narrative. From there, she gave Powerpoint demonstrations, and held an exhibition in 2013. She started a website, gave a TEDx Talk, and now has self-published a book that contains her research as well as her photos.
Baxter’s juxtaposition of photographs and stories reveals how much race and privilege affect which future a person might have after making a mistake. As she reveals, we are all criminals; some simply get penalized differently than others, and are restricted from growing past their mistakes.
Excerpt from “We Are All Criminals”
I was in school, two hours into the desert, and alone. My husband encouraged me to buy a gun. I kept the gun in my duffel bag, and the duffel bag in the car. It’s also the same duffel bag I’d take on vacation.
I got through airport security with a loaded 365 Magnum Revolver and a 6 round speedloader in my carryon. On a layover, we left the secure area to see if there were better food options.
Ma’am, is this your bag?
We need to talk to you.
They assumed it was my husband’s. Never did they assume ill intent. They were curious about motive. Bears? Suicide?
They seized the gun, found a hotel for us, and drove us to it. We were on a flight out of the country the next day.
I was never intimidated or frightened. I was never accused or charged with anything.
I think about it a lot: what could have happened and how incredibly privileged and lucky I am.
I’ve worked for major corporations, and now I’m a pastor. I doubt I’d be where I am today if I had been seen as anything other than innocent back then.
From a former shoplifter, now a prosecutor. “My criminal history helps me be more empathetic. Yeah, it’s still wrong — but I see the whole person. I try to get my colleagues to see the same. We are not the crimes we commit.”
From a woman who transported drugs in car intended for sale, who eventually became a federal officer. “Ironically, 80 percent of my caseload was drug dealers.”
Who ends up in the juvenile justice system is “one of the most glaring examples of racial injustice our nation has to offer. Fully 80 to 90 percent of teenagers have committed an illegal act that could qualify them for time behind bars, and one-third of all teens have committed a serious crime. Most, however, never see the inside of a cell, or even a police car.
— Nell Bernstein, “Burning Down the House”