The Wiecking Center auditorium was packed Thursday afternoon for speaker Emily Baxter’s talk entitled “We are all criminals”.
Baxter has a professional background in law and is the executive director and developer of We are all Criminals. She has also been featured in a TEDx talk and Talks at Google. WAAC is an organization focusing on advocating for reason and mercy in the U.S. criminal and juvenile justice systems.
Baxter started her talk with a powerful statistic – one in four people in the U.S. have a criminal record. But Baxter is a firm believer that four in four people have a criminal history, meaning everyone has taken something that isn’t theirs. Someone has drunk underage or done illegal drugs. Someone has broken even the smallest of laws, and the only reason they are not in the criminal justice system is because they “have the luxury to forget,” as stated by Baxter.
The talk was accompanied by photographs taken by Baxter with strangers’ own examples of how they are criminals written on chalkboards held in their hands. One read “Every saint has a past” and another read “I learned my lesson without learning it the hard way.”
WAAC shines a light on the inequity in the criminal and juvenile justice systems that treat minorities unfairly. Black males have a one in three chance of serving jail time in their lifetime, while white females have a one in 111 chance. Baxter emphasized that people of color are put in jail at a frighteningly higher rate than whites. Even the strangers that Baxter interviewed for her chalkboard photography pick up on this.
Messages on the chalkboards “DRUG USER (but it’s cool, I’m white)” and “Privilege is hard to confront” are just two examples that show that the prejudice is not hard to notice.
Not only are people of color being put in jail at a much higher rate, but they are being jailed for doing the exact same crimes that white people commit. The criminal and juvenile justice systems are more likely to incriminate these people and let the white people walk free. Having a criminal record can destroy lives and impact many more people than just the convict. Baxter said, “People with a criminal record are sentenced to a lifetime of blockades to employment and housing, public benefits, education, loans, adoptions, organ transplants. Consider that just for a moment. You may not be able to access life-saving surgery because of your criminal history.”
Not only do race and gender have to do with being treated unfairly by our criminal justice systems, but socioeconomic status also plays a large role in how you are treated. Most people in U.S. jails have not even been convicted – they are too poor to post bail. Jails are holding more people from their freedom because they make it too difficult for people who may not have as much money as others. This is leaving families without a parent, or children separated from their families, or even in some cases, this is keeping an innocent human behind bars. The poor also may not be able to properly represent themselves in court because they do not have access to a lawyer.
The United States has a mere 5% of the world’s population, yet it holds 25% of the world’s imprisoned population. Baxter stresses that attention needs to be drawn towards the unsettling statistics that come from our country’s criminal and juvenile justice systems.
Baxter ended her talk with a quote from one of her interviewees for the WAAC project. It read, “If the criminal justice system was designed by people who believed they might one day be a part of it, then we would have justice.”
Be aware of your privilege and stand up for those who are not as privileged. Baxter hopes her talk inspires people to take action.
Header photo: Emily Baxter shows photos during her speech in the “We are Criminals” event Wiecking Center Auditorium Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 in Mankato, Minn. (Andrew Bravo/MSU Reporter)