Against the Grain’s CS Soong and Emily discuss WAAC

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.

So, what’s your story?


Emily Baxter is the Director of We Are All Criminals and a former 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 at the Regional Native Public Defense Corporation representing indigent members of the Leech Lake and White Earth Bands of Ojibwe charged with crimes in Minnesota State court. Emily began developing We Are All Criminals through an Archibald Bush Leadership Fellowship in 2012.

WAAC now has a team of dedicated volunteers, interns, and advisors across the United States, advocating for reason and mercy in our criminal and juvenile justice systems.


We Are All Criminals is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that seeks to inspire empathy and ignite social change through personal stories of crime, privilege, justice, and injustice, disrupting the barriers that separate us. As a result, we envision a more just and equitable world, where each of us is able to transcend our past and reach our full potential.

You can read more about starting points for change here.

We’d love to speak to your school, organization, agency, coalition, or faith community. Sign up for news and events notices, and share your own thoughts and stories.

It’s true: we are all criminals. But more importantly, we are all human. And some of us, perhaps one in four of us, may be in need of a second chance.

The Society Pages’ Sarah Lageson and Emily discuss WAAC (transcript of the interview here)

FEATUREtennis-dress FEATUREpediatrician FEATURE40BuckShot TurtleChowder