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Opinion: The Ones that Got Away

Over the past week, there has been an unexpected recurring theme in my life: crime. And no, I am not going to jail. In fact, I’m not in trouble at all, which is precisely the point Emily Baxter wanted to make to the 400 plus BC students sitting in the Rat last Saturday morning for the annual 4Boston teach-in. Baxter is the founder of the project We Are All Criminals, which seeks to “challenge society’s perception of what it means to be a criminal.” In the hour that she spoke to us, she snapped us out of our sleepy stupor and demanded that we think about the United States criminal justice system, not as a something that keeps us safe but instead as an stigmatized organization from which we are free simply by luck. One in four people in the United States has a criminal record, but the other 75% of us have made mistakes too. We just haven’t been caught.

Participants in the We Are All Criminals project tell the stories of times when they got away with it. Baker documents their tales on her website, showing that law-breakers come from all walks of life, with a variety of professions and backgrounds. The one thing that they all have in common is that, had they been caught and prosecuted, their lives would’ve been completely different.

Baxter’s presentation illuminated the nuances of the criminal justice system that most of us at BC don’t know about. America’s policies are structured in a way that preclude people with even the most minor offenses from getting into college, getting hired, getting housing and obtaining professional licensure. Worse, certain social classes and races are overrepresented in the system, perpetuating stereotypes and inequities. I left the 4B teach-in with an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach, knowing that I benefit from not only being an upper class, white woman but also from simple luck.

On Sunday, I watched the Oscars. In John Legend's acceptance speech for his song from the movie "Selma", he said " We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850." Again, the pit in my stomach. The Oscars, and Hollywood in general, are known for their systematic racism, yet I watch complacently.

It was only a week later when, finally on spring break, I sat in my family room with my dad and watched Diane Sawyer’s Hidden America special called “A Nation of Women Behind Bars.” Sawyer visited four all-women prisons across the country to study and report on the culture in these jails, as well as focusing on specific women and their sentences. As I watched these women on TV talk about their meager living space, day-to-day activities, and the time they must serve until they can see the outside world again, the pit in my stomach came back in full force. One woman, only in her twenties, was filmed visiting with her aging grandma and mother. After they left, she explained to Sawyer that, by the time she is released, both of these women whom she loves dearly will probably have died.

It would be easy for me to shut my eyes to what Emily Baxter and Diane Sawyer are trying to tell me. I have never been to a prison (save being a tourist at Alcatraz in 6th grade), and I don’t intend to visit one any time soon. I could keep compartmentalizing criminals as people that are different from me, less than me, and unrelated to me. I can keep safely checking “No” when asked if I have ever been arrested on job applications. I can pretend that I am better than the people who have been incarcerated by the American judicial system. Ignorance is bliss, right?

Photo Courtesy of We Are All Criminals / Facebook

Photo Courtesy of We Are All Criminals / Facebook

The thing is, when I treat the people in our jails as different than me, I am lying to myself. To illustrate my point, I pose the following questions to every student at BC: How many times have you consumed alcohol while underage? How many times have you used a fake ID and not gotten caught? How many times have you stolen property while engaging in public drunkenness on the weekends? How many times have you done or sold drugs? In our little BC bubble, these actions mean nothing to us. They are regular, acceptable and even encouraged. We do them because we know that even if we were to get caught, our punishment would come from BC, not from a state judge, and we would face university probation or expulsion, not jail.

Once we graduate and grow up, we will probably think of our crimes as funny college memories. We won’t pause to think that if we had been caught even once, our promising careers in business, law, or medicine might not have been possible. When we hear about a convict on the news, we won’t pause to think. We will thank the American criminal justice system for keeping our families safe every day and ignore the fact that, for each bona fide criminal that is locked up, many more people are permanently punished for minor mistakes.

I challenge you to think and act instead of ignore.  If the injustice of it all doesn’t make you want to take action, remember that by some twist of fate, it could be you behind bars one day, the mark of ‘criminal’ on your record for the rest of your life.

When Emily Baxter spoke to me and the other members of 4Boston on that Saturday morning, she told us that not only are we all criminals, we are all human. However, we don’t treat the one in four of us who have a criminal record like they are our own kind. We separate them, not only using the walls of prison cells but also through the legal and social restrictions and stigmas that plague those who serve time upon their release. Our current epidemic of mass incarceration and correctional control is detrimental to society, and makes the question of reform no longer "if" but "when." My answer is now, so that we won't stop one more person from getting a second chance.

(south) jersey girl. incapable of whispering. happiest in big cities. still trying to make "swag" happen. very