If the state of Massachusetts grants Mark Wahlberg's application for a pardon, some critics will no doubt wring their hands about celebrity justice and how the system works for the wealthy. To me, the real issue is why felonies carry lifetime penalties.
Wahlberg's crimes were brutally violent (he left one of his two victims blind in one eye) and had racial overtones (the police reported him uttering several racial slurs). So there's no excusing what he did, even when you consider that he was only 16 -- an age when the brain's judgment centers are still developing.
The vast majority of felonies are punishable by fines and a limited number of years behind bars. Yet felonies carry additional sanctions that never expire. In some states, felons lose the ability to vote. In others, they can't obtain professional licenses or certain coveted business permits. In Wahlberg's case, that meant the potential inability to obtain a liquor license in some states for his family's restaurant chain, Wahlburgers. Felons also lose access to some public-sector jobs and safety-net programs. And under federal law, felons cannot possess a gun.
Some of these strictures make sense in the context of deterrence and public safety; for example, there's little reason to allow someone convicted of armed robbery to possess a gun again. But others are there because, evidently, committing a felony reveals a character flaw severe enough to disqualify someone from ever holding the full privileges of citizenship. Once you've displayed "moral turpitude," you're assumed to be irredeemable.
The presumption is rebuttable -- as Wahlberg demonstrates, felons can appeal for pardons. But wouldn't it be better to have the presumption expire automatically at some point, based on the nature of the offense and the subsequent actions of the offender? Leave their crimes on the permanent record, but set a time limit on sanctions except when they're relevant (e.g., denying erstwhile armed robbers the right to possess guns).
Otherwise, felons who don't have Marky Mark money may never reach the end of their sentences.
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