About one in four American adults has a criminal record, but nearly all of us have a criminal history—one or more times when we’ve broken the law. It’s just that 75 percent of us had the privilege or luck to get away with that hit of cocaine, that act of petty shoplifting, or something more serious.

For those who were charged with even a minor offense, a criminal record can be a barrier to a career path, college acceptance, or housing.

Launched in Minnesota in 2013 by attorney Emily Baxter, We Are All Criminals (WAAC) is a small group of legal professionals who want to prompt discussion about imbalances in the criminal justice system.

Luxury to Forget, one of WAAC’s projects at weareallcriminals.org, is a collection of more than 100 personal stories and photos of people who didn’t get caught. Most include images of disembodied hands holding chalkboards that bear stark, hand-written messages: “Every saint has a past,” “Drug user (but it’s cool, I’m white),” “Brought loaded gun onto a plane,” “I’m sorry but you’ll never know,” or simply, “Arson.”

“We’d like to change the way people view others, by changing the way they view themselves,” says Baxter. “We believe this is the foundation for a more rational, reasonable, equitable, and merciful criminal justice system.”

The organization holds events across the nation, including discussions, photographic exhibitions, and conferences. Baxter’s new book, We Are All Criminals, was published in September 2017.

Jen Dolen is a photographer and is the editorial + communications assistant for Public Art Review and Forecast Public Art.

Featured in Public Art Review #57.
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