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Fellows or felons? “We Are All Criminals” project urges reflection, empathy

Emily Baxter, director of the "We Are All Criminals" project, addresses a small group who gathered for further discussion following Baxter's presentation Friday in the Chalberg Theatre at Central Lakes College. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch

Stop, think for just a moment and try to remember.

Remember the candy bar pocketed, the stop sign run, the rival punched, the signature forged. Remember those transgressions lost in the annals of a life lived, forgotten because legal consequences never came.

As part of a project aimed to "inspire empathy and ignite social change," Emily Baxter is asking people to dig deep and recall what they've had the luxury of forgetting without a permanent reminder of a past mistake. Baxter, a former assistant public defender and current fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School's Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, discussed the "We Are All Criminals" project with a crowd nearing 100 in the Chalberg Theatre at Central Lakes College Friday.

"Those of us who have violated the law but have not been caught, we're able to be introduced as fellows and not as felons," Baxter said.

Baxter said by remembering illegal acts personally committed - and with the length and scope of today's criminal code, it's likely to have occurred within the last six hours - people are forced to rethink the distinction between "criminal" and "human."

At least one in four people in the United States has a criminal record, a permanent mark that can be used to deny employment, voting rights, affordable housing, professional licensure, public assistance, college education and many other things. Baxter's project focuses on the other 75 percent of people - doctors, lawyers, college students, journalists and more who've reflected on how their own life might be different if they'd been caught. She's conducted more than 250 interviews all over the United States and is compiling the stories on WeAreAllCriminals.org, the nonprofit organization's website.

Among those collected stories is that of a man who's earned a Ph.D. in biophysics as an adult. At 15 years old, his family moved to a new neighborhood, where he said within the first few weeks he'd been mugged and beaten several times. After awhile, he noticed if he hung around a certain group, the muggings and beatings stopped. He'd joined a gang, a decision made clear by the task he was asked to perform some time later.

He was told if he did not beat another 15-year-old boy in a rival gang with a lead pipe, he would be beaten himself. And so he did, but was never caught.

"Had he been caught, he would have been charged for first-degree assault for the benefit of a gang," Baxter said. "He would have been certified to stand trial as an adult. Once at trial, he would have been convicted. Once convicted he would have entered the system and likely been in prison, out of prison, in prison, out of prison ... like so many people across the United States."

Instead, the man graduated high school and received a scholarship to college, where he said for the first time in his life he could concentrate on schoolwork without the threat of danger or violence. He went on to graduate school and eventually earned a doctorate.

"I'm not saying, and nor is this gentleman, that we somehow need to forget the harm that was done. That there somehow shouldn't be any consequences for that kind of pain. Of course, there should," Baxter said. "This is what I am saying. When we are constructing consequences to (address) that harm, our policies must be rational. They must be reasonable. They must be merciful, and they must have an end. Because without hope, what do people have?"

In a society where statistics show the impoverished and people of color are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, these questions become part of a larger conversation on why some people are caught and others are not. When it comes to juveniles, Baxter said a lifetime of perception as a criminal awaits for some before their brains have even fully developed.

"It gives you pause, doesn't it, or at least I think it should, when you consider all of the foreclosed futures across the United States," Baxter said.

Armed with this information and a fresh perspective on what criminality means, what can people do to help change the system?

Baxter said there are countless ways to make an impact, whether that's through supporting fair hiring initiatives, advocating for humane treatment of people in prisons and jails or volunteering with outreach organizations who assist those incarcerated with everything from improving literacy to maintaining familial connections. If nothing else, she said, she hopes the project starts conversations, ones that may someday lead to a groundswell of reform.

The event was sponsored by the Central Lakes College Office of Diversity and Crow Wing Inside Out Connections. Crow Wing Inside Out Connections is an organization of volunteers working with people in jail through literacy, writing, art, parenting and other classes. Founder Lowell Johnson said he'd like the organization to expand to more work outside the jail walls and is hoping Baxter's message will spur interest in the group.

INFOBOX

What have you had the luxury of forgetting?

Visit www.weareallcriminals.org/your-story to help with the project.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her Bachelor's degree in professional journalism from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. Perkins has interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before joining the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

(218) 855-5874
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