The Unseen Criminals of the United States

A Minnesota-based group interviews people whose crimes went unnoticed to change the perception of those who did get caught.

National Journal
Marina Koren
Dec. 6, 2013, midnight

Every­one is a crim­in­al.

That’s at least ac­cord­ing to a Min­nesota-based aware­ness pro­ject that is col­lect­ing stor­ies of or­din­ary cit­izens without crim­in­al re­cords, the people who know­ingly broke the law without get­ting caught.

A quarter of Min­nesotans have an of­fi­cial crim­in­al re­cord, but the group be­hind the col­lec­tion, called We Are All Crim­in­als, are con­vinced that many more walk among them. Such in­di­vidu­als, the group ex­plains, do not have to carry their crimes, many of them as seem­ingly in­noc­u­ous as minor traffic vi­ol­a­tions, in­to fu­ture ap­plic­a­tions for jobs, col­lege, or hous­ing like the people who were ar­res­ted or con­victed. The group’s prompt for the 75 per­cent of re­cord-free Min­nesotans: “What have you had the lux­ury to for­get?”

The ma­jor­ity of people already in­ter­viewed ad­mit­ted to “nu­mer­ous of­fenses,” ac­cord­ing to the group’s web­site. They in­clude people most of so­ci­ety would not ima­gine as hardened crim­in­als: doc­tors, law­yers, so­cial work­ers, and stu­dents. The “point is less that we’re all bad people, and more that those who are caught aren’t really all that worse than the rest of us,” writes Smith­so­ni­an‘s Rose Eve­leth about the crim­in­al his­tor­ies that nev­er saw con­sequences.

The pro­ject picks up on an on­go­ing move­ment to change the per­cep­tion of what it means to be a per­pet­rat­or. The U.S. Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tun­ity Com­mis­sion has pushed for a crack­down on em­ploy­ers who il­leg­ally dis­crim­in­ate against job ap­plic­ants based on crim­in­al his­tory. Us­ing crim­in­al back­ground in em­ploy­ment de­cisions, in some cases, vi­ol­ates part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Crit­ics say that le­gis­la­tion push­ing to keep com­pan­ies and busi­nesses in the dark about their po­ten­tial em­ploy­ees’ crim­in­al pasts puts staff and the pub­lic in danger. Em­ploy­ers cur­rently have the right to ask po­ten­tial can­did­ates about ar­rest and con­vic­tion re­cords. “However,” the EEOC’s web­site states, “us­ing such re­cords as an ab­so­lute meas­ure to pre­vent an in­di­vidu­al from be­ing hired could lim­it the em­ploy­ment op­por­tun­it­ies of some pro­tec­ted groups and thus can­not be used in this way.”

Min­nesota has one of the low­est in­car­cer­a­tion rates in the na­tion, which means most of­fend­ers are on pa­role and pro­ba­tion, and some are look­ing for work. Some em­ploy­ers may get stuck between a rock and a hard place, risk­ing a law­suit from the fed­er­al agency for re­ject­ing an ap­plic­ant for a crim­in­al back­ground that make the de­cision-makers un­easy.

This year, Min­nesota joined sev­er­al oth­er states in passing a “ban the box” meas­ure, which, start­ing next year, would pro­hib­it em­ploy­ers from ask­ing about or in­vest­ig­at­ing job can­did­ates’ crim­in­al his­tory un­til ap­plic­ants get an in­ter­view or an of­fer.

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