Over 26 years ago, a 16-year-old named Mark Wahlberg unleashed a brutal beat down on a pair of Vietnamese immigrants, and he eventually served 45 days in jail after his felony conviction.
By all societal measures Wahlberg has been rehabilitated, not only as a productive citizen, but as a decent human being as well. Now, after all of these intervening years, Wahlberg has petitioned Governor Deval Patrick for a pardon because, just like many of the 70 million Americans who are living in this country with some kind of a criminal record, Wahlberg is still struggling with the collateral consequences of his conviction.
In the United States, a sentence does not end when the former inmate finally walks past the prison gates. As a recent report issued by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers notes, there are roughly 50,000 collateral consequences on the books, ranging from the inability to access public housing and the loss of the right to vote, to being prevented from exercising the constitutional right to own a firearm or being denied access to a Pell grant to help finance a college education.
The seriousness of this issue became very real for me three years ago. After a successful 30-year career lobbying for small businesses and communities fighting overdevelopment, I was arrested and subsequently pled guilty to two felonies for bribing an elected official. As a result, I spent 90 days in a federal prison.
Upon exiting, I confronted many challenges trying to resurrect my life on both a personal and professional level. For someone like me, the loss of a respected professional identity that took decades to build was a severe emotional blow — along with the considerable pain experienced by those who love me.
What political leaders have done in this country is to place enormous, byzantine barriers to re-entry for those formerly incarcerated, many of whom have a limited education background and already faced huge obstacles in gaining a foothold in mainstream society. The NACDL report calls for the elimination of collateral consequences that are keeping millions in a permanent exile, underclass status.
One significant way to help those who have gone through prison overcome these multitude of additional barriers is through the pardon process. A pardon is the way in which society can most poignantly offer forgiveness for those who have made mistakes and have demonstrated that they have transformed their lives.
Unfortunately, the pardon process has become atrophied in this country, at both the state and federal levels. As one astute observer has pointed out, “For much of our history, the president used his pardon power to correct wrongs, forgive transgressors, and temper justice with mercy. Governors, likewise, used their power to prevent the perpetuations of injustice. Today, those instincts have died, buried under a legacy of prosecutorial zeal and a fear of adverse political criticism.”
As a society, what we have lost is the ability to forgive, and along with this, the recognition that forgiveness is what makes redemption a real possibility. In this sense, Mark Wahlberg’s pardon application is making a powerful statement. Even with all of his success, great wealth, and fame, he is still being punished for juvenile wrongdoing and is asking that society forgive him because he is no longer the person who committed that conduct.
Wahlberg’s request, however, is being met with some strikingly harsh responses. As one critic sees it, a sense of “unvarnished privilege” is driving Wahlberg’s desire for a “whitewashing of his record. . . ” This viewpoint is shortsighted in the extreme. If one of Wahlberg’s victims, Johnny Trinh, can forgive the actor, can’t society follow suit?
And isn’t the “whitewashing” of records perfectly appropriate for all of those formerly incarcerated men and women — almost all less fortunate than Wahlberg —
Acknowledging the truth of this is acknowledging that, as a country, America suffers from a forgiveness deficit that is badly in need of a remedy. The Wahlberg pardon application should be a strong message to our president and all 50 governors that it is time to breathe new life into the currently moribund pardon process.
The great majority of those millions of formerly incarcerated Americans of all backgrounds, despite laboring under the stigma of a criminal record, have, against long odds, reclaimed their lives. Those lives shouldn’t be permanently stained. Let Mark Wahlberg’s pardon be the first of many more to come.
Richard Lipsky is a consultant for the Foundation for Criminal Justice.