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Reframing the conversation about what it means to be a criminal

Most of us consider ourselves to be law-abiding citizens. Indeed, very few of us would think of ourselves as "criminals," much less accept being labeled as one. But criminality is kind of a fluid concept, particularly in a country where so many behaviors are considered crimes.

By some estimates, there are about 4,500 federal criminal statutes. On top of that, there are an unknown number of regulations which can result in incarceration and other criminal penalties. On top of all that, we are further bound by Wisconsin criminal statutes and regulations. If a criminal is defined as someone who has violated a criminal statute or otherwise broken the law, it’s a pretty safe bet that nearly all of us would fall under that definition.

A project called "We Are All Criminals" attempts to reframe the conversation about what it means to be a criminal. According to the WAAC website, about 25 percent of the U.S. population has a criminal record for offenses more serious than a minor traffic violation. That's one in every four Americans.

But, as WAAC notes, plenty of crimes have been committed by individuals in the other 75 percent. Anonymous contributors are allowed to post pictures on the site confessing to their crimes in creative ways. These contributors realize that their lack of criminal record has more to do with not getting caught than with some higher standard of morality.

To be clear, none of this is intended to suggest that crime is "no big deal" or that all human beings are inherently bad. Rather, it is a reminder that the line between "criminal" and "upstanding citizen" is thinner than most people are willing to admit. Therefore, we as a society need to challenge practices and policies that make it difficult or impossible for convicted offenders to find jobs, rent an apartment or take advantage of other opportunities due to a past mistake.

It is also a reminder that if you have been charged with a crime, your future may depend on how those charges are handled and whether or not you have an experienced advocate on your side. A good criminal defense attorney can help you understand your rights and options, and can help you mitigate the consequences of your offense.

Source: The Washington Post, "When everything is a crime," George F. Will, April 8, 2015

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