Last year, high school student Kiera Wilmot combined aluminum foil and toilet-bowl cleaner to make an erupting volcano for science class. Outside, before class, Wilmot wanted to show some friends how it worked. When she put the chemicals together, the experiment began to smoke. The school’s principal and dean of discipline accused Wilmot of making a bomb on school property and had her handcuffed and arrested.
“If I could go back in time, I definitely wouldn’t have done it,” Wilmot wrote after she was expelled from school because of the incident.
But what if she hadn’t gotten caught? Or what if the school had decided not to call the police?
In a different town, a teenager who was also curious about science created a flammable gel from household materials, put it in a state park Porta-Potty, and lit it on fire. “It was beautiful and terrifying all at once,” she later said. “Carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen in a very specific and frightening form.”
Today the teenager who blew up the Porta-Potty is a pediatrician. If she’d been caught, this couldn’t have happened. Minnesota law would have prohibited her from working with vulnerable people. She told this story anonymously as part of the "We Are All Criminals" project, to demonstrate the lifelong advantages of avoiding arrest for youthful indiscretions.
In the United States, about one in every four people has a criminal record for something other than a minor traffic violation.
Emily Baxter, a Minnesota-based lawyer and advocate, believes that pretty much everyone has committed some kind of crime—it’s just that most of us never get caught. Not murder or armed robbery, necessarily, but things like shoplifting, trespassing, or drunk driving. Even presidents of the United States have admitted to having used drugs in their youth.
While working as a public defender, Baxter saw firsthand how one mistake could mess up someone’s life for decades.
Even when the charges are dropped or don’t lead to a conviction, people who are arrested or charged with crimes still have a criminal record.
Once a person has a record, it becomes much harder (if not impossible) to do things such as get a job, rent an apartment, or be accepted into college and receive financial aid. In many states, including Minnesota, people with felony convictions can’t vote.
But when Baxter would try to tell people in positions of influence—landlords, employers, legislators, or law enforcement—about the problem, she says, “time and again the person to whom I was speaking did not have an interest in the conversation.” They just didn’t see a need for second chances.
“It is ridiculous,” Baxter says, “to assume that only those who have criminal records are the individuals who have committed any crimes.” She decided that rather than plead the cases of the 25 percent of people caught up in the criminal justice system, she was going to focus on the “75 percent who’ve gotten away with crimes and who now stand in a position of judgment” against those with a record.
She put out a call asking people without criminal records to talk about “what you’ve had the luxury to forget.” The interviews became the We Are All Criminals project, an online gallery of stories and photos.
More than 250 people have confessed their crimes to Baxter since she started doing the interviews in 2012. Their identities are always kept anonymous. Baxter meets them somewhere they feel safe, records the confessions, takes photos that represent the person, and then publishes the story and picture online.
During some of the interviews people laughed about past mistakes, like the guy who described his “40-dollar buckshot”—shooting open a parking meter with his uncle’s shotgun as a teenager. Others felt ashamed. One woman cried as she told the story of stealing money from the coffee shop where she worked. There was a complicated backstory—in solidarity with a manager they believed was unfairly pushed out, the staff of the coffee shop kept money rather than ringing up the purchases. But reduced to just a single act, the crime she confessed is horrible.
After confessing and having their photo taken, people sometimes backtrack and change their minds, Baxter says, saying they can’t deal with being reduced to a past criminal act and a mug-shot type picture.
These moments in which people realize that a “stupid act” could define them—“this is what the project is about,” she says.
Regardless of whether the confessors should have been caught and punished, they weren’t. Baxter’s project asks, If everyone had been arrested for every crime they committed, would that make us all criminals?