We Are All Criminals
Date Posted: April 16, 2018
The Robina Institute is pleased to present a Robina In Conversation, “We Are All Criminals,” with Emily Baxter on Tuesday, April 17th, 2018, at the University of Minnesota Law School.
One in four people in the United States has a criminal record; four in four have a criminal history. That includes you.
For the readers who do not have a criminal record: what have you gotten away with? What would your criminal record say? What have you had the luxury to forget? Go ahead and start small, I’ll wait.
Perhaps you’ve smoked pot or used someone else’s prescription medication, taken goods home from the office supply closet, walked out of the store without paying for something, not been completely honest on your taxes, tagged school property, piggybacked on your neighbor’s Wi-Fi or cable, cut a check that bounced, or illegally downloaded music and movies.
How’s your list coming along?
Perhaps you’ve driven home drunk, bought booze for someone underage, threw a punch, or given your leftover pain pills to a friend. Maybe you drove with a cracked windshield or left your wallet at home when you got behind the wheel. Maybe you extended your personal work discount to a friend, maybe you didn’t ring everything up.
Tally up your list. People have been incarcerated for less. People have been jailed for less. People have lost their jobs and their homes for less. People have lost their lives for less.
According to an FBI report, the national overall crime rate, including violent crime and property crime, was down 2.6% in 2015, decreasing for the 14th year in a row.
And for what? Despite what some may suggest, crime rates remain near or at an historic low. According to an FBI report, the national overall crime rate, including violent crime and property crime, was down 2.6% in 2015, decreasing for the 14th year in a row. Yet there are over two million individuals incarcerated across the country, with millions more on probation and parole. Mass criminalization of the poor and people of color continues at alarming rates. For example, the US Sentencing Commission reported that black males received federal sentences on average more than 19 percent longer than similarly-situated white males. That is: when white men and black men are accused of committing the same crime in federal court, black men are sent to prison for significantly longer periods of time than their white counterparts, a disparity that exists even after controlling for criminal history, history of violence, whether they plead guilty, their age, their level of education, and their citizenship status.
And, of course that criminalization doesn’t come close to stopping after a sentence has been served. If you labor under the devastating weight of a criminal record, the odds for securing gainful employment, enough food to fill your belly, and the ability to put a roof over your family’s head, are stacked against you—problems exacerbated if you’re not white. Meanwhile, people without criminal records are able to walk through doors that are otherwise closed to those with records.
Look at your list again. Millions of people caught or accused, a grossly disproportionate number of whom are black, brown, and Indigenous, will pay for similar crimes for decades to come. Through exacerbated marginalization, stressed families and communities, and countless barriers that prevent the ability to move on and move up, millions in America are sentenced to a lifetime of stigma and isolation for which there is no end.
Less than a year ago, a Sacramento police officer stopped, harassed, pummeled, handcuffed, and arrested a black man for allegedly jaywalking. A few months later and on the other side of the country, an Asheville, North Carolina police officer harassed, tackled, punched in the head, shot with a stun gun, choked, handcuffed, and arrested a 32-year-old black man for, again, allegedly jaywalking.
Add jaywalking to your list.
Add failing to signal a turn, driving with a burned out third brake light, and selling something small without a permit.
It’s not just unlawful behavior that results in an immediate death sentence in the US. It’s any behavior that may seem innocuous but becomes threatening when there’s a perception of criminality because of the color of one’s skin. Add playing music too loudly, shopping at Walmart, notifying a police officer that you have a permit to carry, making eye contact with an officer, riding the train home, calling for help after an accident, sitting in your car before your bachelor party, wearing a hoodie, and playing with a toy in a park.
Back to Sacramento. Last month, a 22-year-old black man was shot by Sacramento police officers. Eight bullets ripped through his body, mostly in his back, shattering his vertebrae, collapsing his lung, and breaking his arm into what the medical examiner described as “tiny bits.” The man was unarmed, carrying only, as most of us do, a cellphone. He was Stephon Clark: a father, a brother, a grandson, a man.
Add standing in your grandmother’s backyard to your list.
This isn’t a problem that begins and ends with law enforcement, or with those who have taken to policing without a badge. This is about ingrained racism perpetuated by the legal system that flows through every institution and arena of our culture.
It’s about how many in the media or general public refuse to see the humanity behind the fallen body. It’s about drug draws done on murdered boys’ bodies, but not on the person who pulled the trigger. It’s about mugshots used for fathers’ death notices. It’s about background checks run on still-warm-quickly-cooling bodies: Did you know he was a sex offender? She had a history of drug use. She’d been in prison. He'd been stopped by police 49 times. He was no angel.
For many in America, we’re in need of a culture shift. We must see the humanity of those arrested, accused, labeled, and abused by our criminal justice system. We must collapse the gap between us and them. It can start with holding up a mirror to ourselves—and a microscope to our own histories.
A criminology professor in Georgia, Denise Woodall, has been asking students about how people in prison or those with criminal records should be treated. How many meals a day should people in prison receive? Should they be allowed to study behind bars, to work after release, to live near you?
After recording these answers, Professor Woodall asks students to recall their own criminal histories, acts that went uncaught. And consider what life would be like had they been prosecuted, punished, and labeled a criminal. Then she asks those first questions once more.
Professor Woodall asks students to recall their own criminal histories, acts that went uncaught. And consider what life would be like had they been prosecuted, punished, and labeled a criminal. Then she asks those first questions once more.
Professor Woodall tells me, for example, that more than 50% of the time, students who first said that people in prison should receive only two meals a day, change their answers to three, after realizing that they themselves could have been the ones denied dinner for the next eight years.
We Are All Criminals seeks to close that empathy and that opportunity chasm. This is a call for reason, equity, and mercy--an acknowledged ownership in the problem as well as the solution.
Look at your list again. Would anyone call you an angel if every law you had broken had resulted in an arrest, a charge, a prosecution, a criminal record?
Yes, we are all criminals, but we are also so much more.
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