We Are All Criminals

One in four people in the United States has a criminal record. It’s a record for something other than a minor traffic violation used by the vast majority of employers, legislators, landlords and licensing boards to craft policy 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. It’s a record that prevents not only professional licensure and a gainful career path, but can also get in the way of obtaining entry-level positions, foster care licenses, entry into college, and safe housing. 

But We Are All Criminals is not about those records. This project looks at the other 75%: those of us who have had the luxury of living without an official reminder of a past mistake. Participants in We Are All Criminals tell stories of crimes they got away with. Some details have been changed to help protect the participants’ identities and to abbreviate the stories; the majority of the people interviewed relayed numerous offenses, but in most cases, only one of the stories has been cataloged. 

The participants 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. The photographs, while protecting participants’ identities, convey personality: each is taken in the participant’s home, office, crime scene, or neighborhood. 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. 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 truly – we are all criminals. 

But 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. Permanent and public criminal records perpetuate inequities, precluding millions of people from countless opportunities to move on and move up. 

We Are All Criminals questions the wisdom and fairness in those policies. But this goes beyond background checks. It goes beyond how we make choices of who we interview, hire, or to whom we rent. This is about how we view others by how we view ourselves.

Jim Manske’s insight:
Fascinating to me. To see the normally unseen…to name the normally unnamed.
A childhood Bible story reminds me that we all fall short of perfection. I remember Jesus saying something like, "Whomever of you is without sin may cast the first stone."
I am innocent, because I have never been convicted. On a deeper level, I am innocent because I am forgiven. Even deeper? I am innocent because I am human.
And you are innocent as well! We are innocent. Even if we have been caught, convicted, sentenced, incarcerated, probated and released, we are innocent.
We are all much more alike than we are different. And we have all got away with something "illegal". We are all criminals. We are all innocent. We are all human.
How does this awareness change our attitude toward "them"? (those who have been caught and punished for something we, too, may have done?)
For me, it deepens my commitment to continue to work toward a restorative system of justice. A restorative system addresses harm and loss through connection and restoration. That’s the world I want to live in. In that world, I am more willing to own my "crimes" and restore connection with those who suffer as a result of my actions. In that world, I live and practice self-responsibility, and I am very careful about every law I write or accept. As Robert Anton Wilson said, "every law creates a new group of criminals."