People familiar with Wahlberg’s personal history know that his onscreen swagger as a tough guy on the edge is not much of an act. Wahlberg began his criminal career at age 13 when he joined a gang in his native Dorchester, a working-class neighborhood in southern Boston. Just before he turned 17, while drunk and high on narcotics, Wahlberg assaulted two men during a failed attempt to steal two cases of alcohol. The court tried and convicted him as an adult and he served 45 days in prison, a terrifying experience he cites as the turning point of his life. Wahlberg gives credit to a loving family and mentors like his parish priest.
Not shy about his past, Wahlberg has made his life as a reformed criminal the cornerstone of his charitable activities. He writes in the petition:
I have not engaged in philanthropic efforts in order to make people forget about my past. To the contrary, I want people to remember my past so that I can serve as an example of how lives can be turned around and how people can be redeemed.
Redemption, in his film career and in his personal activism, has remained a constant for Wahlberg. In response to the petition’s request for proof of a “substantial period of good citizenship since conviction” Wahlberg has a long list of community involvement through his organization, the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, as well as active participation in 11 more non-profits, most of which focus on at-risk youths. He also served as executive producer and narrator for a one-season series called Juvies, a documentary about the juvenile court system, and the need to offer young criminals the chance at rehabilitation. A chance Wahlberg knows he was lucky to have.
In response to the legal request, several opinion pieces have approached his pardon petition with moral outrage, concluding that Wahlberg does not deserve forgiveness, and to ask for it indicates a sense of entitlement.
There are two points in this moral outrage that deserve attention. First, some insinuate, others bluntly state that Wahlberg enjoys white privilege regarding his criminal past. Since Wahlberg’s victims in the attack were Vietnamese, a state pardon for a white man would be insulting given the current state of racial affairs after Ferguson and the Eric Garner scandal. Second, the critics conclude that offering an ex-convict like Wahlberg pardon would set the bad example that later success can erase criminal behavior.
To the first, since the court tried and convicted him as an adult, he did not seem to benefit from special privileges at the time of the conviction. Any special treatment afforded him today via public approval is privilege based on celebrity status, not race. Let’s contemplate the following: Mike Tyson, Roman Polanski, Michael Vick, Robert Downey, Jr., Jay-Z, Sean Penn. Unlike the teenaged Wahlberg, all of these celebrities committed crimes (from aggravated assault to dog fighting to drug possession to rape to a stabbing) after they had achieved celebrity status. Some served jail time, others got off easy. With the exception of Downey, Jr., most have done little to demonstrate repentance, but their careers are fine regardless. Celebrities live in a strange world: as long as they entertain us and don’t make us too uncomfortable, their careers can maintain the public’s good graces, but the public will continue to remind them of their infractions in perpetuity. Yes, we embrace their entertainment value, but to forgive when we can sit as perpetual judges instead? Piers Morgan demands why the public cannot forgive Wahlberg his 26 year old crime when 1) Wahlberg has served time and has publically and consistently demonstrated his remorse for years, and 2) one of his victims has offered his forgiveness and support of the pardon.
Public reluctance to offer forgiveness to celebrities – to acknowledge a changed heart, not merely permission to entertain us – is not all that far off from our treatment of our peers. It is exaggerated, of course, but in the same way that a person can get verbally abusive to a customer service rep on the phone, liberated through anonymity.
And this brings us to the second claim: does a pardon for Wahlberg set a bad example? An opinion piece in Time states that:
[At-risk youths] will see that if they get rich enough or famous enough, it won’t matter what they did as kids, they’ll be able to make it go away like a bad Etch-a-Sketch doodle. They will see his fame as the mitigating factor, not his redemption or considerable charity work. It will just give everyone another reason to want to be famous. Also, shouldn’t he want to go in there and change these kids’ lives before they commit a felony?
Aside from the idiotic recommendation to save kids before they need saving, chilling dismissals of rehabilitation like this reveal a startling ignorance of what life is like for convicted felons, particularly juveniles. People like Wahlberg who are familiar with the system know that the danger is not at-risk kids thinking their lives will be a cake-walk once they go straight and achieve fame and fortune. The despair that occurs once a kid gets a rap sheet is precisely what causes people to become repeat offenders. The damning rejections of a pardon request for an ex-con on the grounds that it sets a bad example is precisely the attitude Wahlberg is talking about when he wrote:
[a pardon] would be formal recognition that someone like me can receive official public redemption if he devotes himself to personal improvement and a life of good works. My hope is that, if I receive a pardon, troubled youths will see this as an inspiration and motivation that they too can turn their lives around and be formally accepted back into society. It would also be an important capstone to the lessons that I try to teach my own children on a daily basis.
Not content with the effort, time, and money he has already spent working with at-risk youths, he cites another motivation for the pardon. Wahlberg would like the option to obtain a position as a parole or probation officer – though, he clarifies, he is not interested in a firearm permit – so that he can offer even more immediate help to troubled kids.
Even if the state denies the request, Wahlberg has succeeded: he made people seriously discuss redemption, the justice system, and criminal rehabilitation. The court of public opinion has no bearing on the legality of a state pardon but Wahlberg’s request has brought an important consideration in both of those spheres.