A Nation of Criminals

An estimated 65 million Americans have criminal records, meaning that they have been arrested at least once and possibly convicted of a crime. That represents more than one out of every five Americans.

We pride ourselves on being a "law and order" society, and we have the highest incarceration rate of any nation on earth to prove it.

While the United States represents just over 4% of the world's population, we house around 22% of the world's prisoners.

At the end of 2010, there were 2,266,800 people in U.S. prisons and jails. And an additional 5 million folks are on what's called Community Supervision, meaning that they are on either parole or probation.

Amazing, really: well over 7 million Americans - right now - are either in jail, in prison, on parole or probation.

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The young, the male, the Black and the Latino are disproportionately incarcerated. Of men in their late 20s almost 9% of all Blacks and 4% of all Latinos are behind bars in our America. It’s little surprise that young minority men who represent our nation's highest levels of unemployment are so often found in our jails or prisons, folks with too little purpose and too much time on their hands.

My late wife, Sandra Gardebring Ogren, spent many years as a Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. Often, while at home of an evening, she could be found reading copious legal briefs for cases before the court. On many occasions I heard her exclaim, "Damn, it's another B in B case!"

"B in B" was court slang for "Black in Blaine," Blaine being a St. Paul suburb notorious for pulling over black motorists under the thinnest possible pretext for the sin of having driven through their fair city.

Sandra and her colleagues on the Court routinely threw out those convictions resulting from Black in Blaine arrests, but by then huge damage had already been done as folks were dragged through the court system, their lives upset and their venial sins magnified. I'm afraid that same damage is still being done to Americans of color in too many communities across our nation.

I thought about this question a lot in recent months, as case after case of police killings of unarmed black men filled the news. And I was particularly disturbed when I saw a video of a little boy, just 12 years old, shot to death by the police for proudly displaying his new BB Gun. When I was a boy having a BB Gun was just about the greatest thing any fella could have. Hell, I still have a BB pistol I play with occasionally.

The Crime of Being Poor

An old friend of mine, Joe Quinn, was a District Court Judge back in Minnesota. We had lunch one day after Joe had been on the bench for several years. "The most frustrating thing about my job" he explained, "is that most of the defendants in my courtroom are really there for the crime of being poor."

If you're poor it often comes down to something like this: you are pulled over while driving your car because one of your brake lights is out, and found to be driving without proof of insurance. You haven't fixed the taillight and don't have insurance because you have a lousy job that doesn't pay worth a damn, and can't afford it.

As a result of your offense you lose your Driver's License and are subject to fines you can’t afford to pay. You still have to get to your low paying job somehow, and are subsequently pulled over and arrested, this time for driving without a license and failure to pay the court-ordered fines. More fines are added on, and now you are looking at jail time as well.

Pretty soon we have managed to turn that poor guy with the crummy job into a genuine criminal.

The Real American Crime

Over 7 million people in our jails, our prisons, or on parole and probation makes no sense, and is simply unsustainable. It is not true that Americans are somehow worse than folks everywhere else in our world. 

The real American crime is a criminal justice system that routinely turns inoffensive behavior into law breaking, and decent citizens into outlaws. And the further crime is a refusal to invest adequately in programs to alleviate poverty, improve public education, and provide good and consistent job programs and job training for young Americans.

I am a Criminal

I'll let you in on a little secret: I am one of the 65 million Americans with a criminal record.

When I was a teenager and a young man I thought I was of little interest and little value. I took a variety of drugs, whatever was available, in a vain attempt to become someone else. For a number of years I was simply lost, floundering about in a desperate attempt to reinvent myself. I was arrested for drug related offenses on several occasions, and only because my loving father was a well-connected lawyer and law professor did I avoid doing time in prison.

When I was first elected to the Minnesota State Legislature in 1980 I was 29 years old, and still on probation in the State of California for the crime of Marijuana cultivation. Those were the days before the Internet, thank God, and my sordid past was not common knowledge in my new home of Minnesota. And that's a good thing: I managed to help a lot of people with my work in the legislature, and found value in myself in the process.

These days I am again feeling lost in much the way I did as a young man. I've allowed unrecognized depression to curdle into anger, and I've been too often unkind to the people who love me most. I don't think I hurt people back in the day with my drug use. But hurting the people who love me is my true, and more recent crime.

It is so very hard to find someone who will share the center of your life, who knows who you really are, and who loves you anyway. If you are lucky enough to have such a person in your life, please know that he or she is a treasure beyond measure. And make sure you return the love. It might not come around more than once in a lifetime.

I won't be turning to illicit drugs for help this time, though a little Prozac might help. I need instead to get back in touch with that insight from the scripture, "I am wondrously made." And I need to realize that each of you are as well.

There are sometimes revelatory moments in our lives, often beaten into us one way or another, that allow us to reassess and move forward. Here's an aspirational prayer for us all:

I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see


Paul Ogren