Minnesota project examines how different life would be with a criminal record



One in four people in the United States has a criminal record. It’s a record used by the vast majority of employers, legislators, landlords, and licensing boards to craft policies and determine the character of an individual.  In our electronic and data age, it typically does not disappear, regardless of how long it’s been or how far one’s come. The effect is an endless sentence, precluding countless opportunities to move on or move up in life.

But what about the other 75%?

We Are All Criminals is a documentary project that looks at the three in four people in the US who have the luxury of living without an official reminder of a past mistake.  Participants tell stories of crimes they got away with.  They are doctors and lawyers, social workers and students, retailers and retirees who consider how very different their lives could have been had they been caught; these confessions are juxtaposed with stories of people who were caught for similar offenses.

The stories are of youth, boredom, intoxication, and porta potties. They are humorous, humiliating, and humbling in turn. They are privately held memories without public stigma; they are criminal histories without criminal records.

The project includes a wide range of current professions and severity of past offenses: a pediatrician who experimented with explosives as a bored teen; a biophysicist who seriously assaulted a child when he was just one himself; a legislator who disarmed a cop; a corrections professional who sold meth; a social worker who tipped over a porta potty with a high school rival inside; a retailer who slashed her cheating fiancé’s tires; a medical researcher who tagged playground equipment; a counselor who gave her Klonopin to a friend who had difficulty sleeping.

A photograph that protects the participant’s identity while attempting to convey individuality and personality accompanies every story; each is taken in the participant’s home, office, crime scene, or neighborhood. While there are some exceptions, the majority of the people interviewed recounted numerous times they avoided getting caught in criminal activity.  In most cases, only one of these instances has been cataloged. The first 80 of more than 200 interviews can be found online, at www.weareallcriminals.org.

Viewers will find varying responses to recollections of transgressions: people who laughed throughout their interview (a mechanic who ‘liberated’ forty dollars worth of quarters from a parking meter with a single, drunken rifle shot); people who wept throughout theirs (a restaurant manager who had swiped extra money when swapping out her tips at a coffee shop); people who were terribly sorry for what they had done (a teacher who furnished alcohol to a minor); and those who can’t believe that something they did might be prosecuted (a research scientist who stole items ranging from salt and pepper shakers, to street signs, to a fire hydrant).

I hope viewers also find a bit of themselves in the photos or stories of We Are All Criminals. For those who have had the luxury to forget, I hope they remember events that haven’t been used to define their character at life’s every opportunity and turn.

I hope in that reflection, viewers take note of the context they may have allowed themselves (I was young, I was drunk, I was stupid, I was in a bad relationship, I gave it back anyway, no one got hurt, It wasn’t my idea) and acknowledge that others may have been in a similar situation but were caught.

I hope some recognize the privilege they’ve experienced (the cop just told us to go home, the manager didn’t even question us, we didn’t have a police liaison in school—we went to the counselor if we got in trouble) and appreciate that not everyone has benefited from that same privilege.

I hope that viewers reflect upon how very different their own lives might have been had they been burdened by a record, and consider the foreclosed futures of those who have been caught.

In this way, We Are All Criminals seeks to challenge society’s perception of what it means to be a criminal and how much weight a record should be given, when we have all violated the law. It is also a commentary on the disparate impact of our nation’s policies, policing, and prosecution: many of the participants benefited from belonging to a class and race that is not overrepresented in the criminal justice system.

It’s true: we are all criminals. But more importantly, we are all human. With that in mind, we must work to reduce our criminal code (over the last few decades, our criminal code has exploded in size; we can reel that back by reducing the criminalization of homelessness, mental illness, juvenile behavior, poverty, and drugs); support and increase restorative justice alternatives; reduce the collection, retention, and dissemination of criminal and juvenile records; create meaningful remedies to those records that allow people a true chance to move beyond their records; reduce the collateral sanctions attached to criminal records; and importantly, begin the dialogue change in your own community.

We Are All Criminals isn’t just about background checks. It isn’t just about the choices we make of whom to interview or hire, rent to, grant licensure to, or allow to cast a ballot.  It is about how we view others measured by how we view ourselves. And some of us, perhaps one in four of us, may be in need of a second chance.


Emily Baxter

Emily Baxter is a Fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. Prior to this, Emily served as the director of advocacy and public policy at the Council on Crime and Justice in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and as an assistant public defender representing indigent members of the Leech Lake and White Earth Bands of Ojibwe charged with crimes in Minnesota State court. Emily is a former Archibald Bush Fellow. Her project, We Are All Criminals, which challenges society’s perception of ‘clean’ vs. ‘criminal,’ can be found at www.weareallcriminals.org.

Visit Author's Website
View All Posts