Newsletter: Who’s the Criminal?

September 22, 2015

9/22 Episode: WHO’S THE CRIMINAL?


This week, we ask a simple question: Who counts as a criminal?

Is a criminal anyone who’s ever committed a crime? Or just someone who’s been arrested? Or convicted? Or gone to jail?

What about people who’ve been sent to prison and gotten out. They did the crime, served the time… are they still criminals?

Somewhere between a quarter and a third of all Americans have criminal records. So how you answer it –– and how employers, colleges, and social service agencies answer it –– has huge effects on many people’s lives. And those effects, as you might imagine, vary widely according to race, class and geography.

So, who is a criminal? We sent Nicole Pasulka to find an answer. Listen to Life of the Law’s latest feature episode, here.

Radio Stations: You can find our new episode here on PRX, Public Radio Exchange.


Reporter’s Notebook: Nicole Pasulka


I learned about We Are All Criminals and Emily Baxter’s project from a friend. I’ve never had a criminal record, but like many people, I’ve done my fair share of illegal things and have not been caught. I’ve written on expungment for juvenile offenders before, but the basic facts of criminal records–that one quarter to one third of Americans have some type of record, that even an arrest record can hold a person back–seem to be missing from our conversations about criminal justice, reentry, and crime. The idea, according to most people I spoke with who are trying to change the way records impact life post-conviction, is not that we forget that harm’s been committed or that someone has broken the law, but punishments should have an end and we need to find a way to allow people convicted of crimes, back into society in a meaningful way.
When I learned that Emily Baxter recorded her interviews with people who weren’t caught for crimes they’d committed, a radio story seemed like the obvious way to approach the subject. Talking to people reluctant to give those with a criminal record a second chance, is a big part of Emily’s work. It was fascinating to hear about people’s anonymous “confessions.” I think many people don’t want to be hypocritical so if you contextualize an issue to show how a standard is being unfairly applied, it can have a big impact.
It felt important to lead with the stories of people who did get caught and now have to deal with criminal records. There are a lot of people out there who’ve been incarcerated and are working hard to reform the system or support other people through reentry. Jerome Graham and Khalil Cumberbatch–the men I talked to for this piece–were both caught for crimes their criminal records restrict their ability to pursue work and education. They are working as advocates, but that happened after a lot of frustration, rejection, and paperwork.

While Graham was on probation for a drug charge he even had a letter stating that his arrest wasn’t a conviction and shouldn’t be held against him by prospective employers. That letter didn’t stop a number of organizations from rejecting him on the grounds that he’d been arrested for a drug crime.

Cumberbatch had come to the United States from Guyana when he was four. In 2014, after he’d served his sentence and completed his probation for the robbery conviction, he was placed in immigration detention for five months. He would have been deported if not for a huge community effort to get him released. He’s since been pardoned by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, one of only five pardon’s granted by Cuomo.

I was lucky that both Graham and Cumberbatch were comfortable talking openly about their criminal histories. They work in advocacy roles where their past offenses have been acknowledged and have become part of their work. But for people still struggling to find work or access education, their criminal record is public. The people who confess to confess to crimes they committed but were never caught for, always talk to Emily Baxter anonymously. They have the luxury of choice. They committed a crime but their name is clear.

What the Law Looks Like: The Refugee Crisis


As the refugee crisis bewilder the nation states of the Middle East and Europe, the Obama Administration said this week that the United States will more than double the number of worldwide refugees it accepts each year, from 70,000 to 170,000. As talk about immigration law builds to the 2016 presidential election, this photo serves as a reminder of what’s at stake around the world: lives.


LOTL Staff Review: What Happened After My Kidnapping


It’s a weird thing to say but Bradford Pearson was probably a good person to kidnap. For one thing he had no interest in fighting back, so the situation didn’t escalate to serious physical endangerment. But more importantly, Bradford is a journalist, which means he turned his own frightening experience into a brilliant piece of storytelling.

After being abducted and robbed in Philadelphia as a teenager in college, Bradford’s life was changed forever. He would think about the episode frequently. At first, his memories of the kidnapping prevented him from leading a normal life. Eventually, though, he recovered and discovered normalcy.

The same can’t be said for the three men who kidnapped him. Incarcerated for decades the lives of these men were ruined by the crimes they chose to commit. Bradford discovered this after finding his captors; meeting two of them in prison; and comparing his life to their very different lives.

In this first-person narrative for Philadelphia Magazine, Bradford explores the limits of forgiveness and rehabilitation within a criminal justice system that so often discourages both.