The quality of mercy

Mark Wahlberg has lately come under attack for seeking a pardon in his 1988 racist assault of two Vietnamese men. Much of the criticism has argued that a black man assaulting and maiming two white men in such a way would never have resulted in such a light sentence (45 days in prison) nor been given the opportunity to become a beloved pop star and movie star.

But this criticism strikes me as exactly backward. Even without his philanthropic efforts, whatever you may think of them, Mark Wahlberg is pretty much exactly how you want a violent, racist young person to turn out as an adult: he pays taxes, participates constructively in society, eschews violence, and expresses public regret for his crimes.

Keep in mind that Wahlberg was 16 when he committed his crime: a child, despite our unfortunate tendency these days to try 16-year-olds as adults. He was young and did something stupid and paid a limited price that enabled him to learn that what he did was very wrong while also enabling him to turn into a functional adult.

The core problem with our criminal justice system is that it denies these opportunities to too many of the young people who fall afoul of it — especially those who are black or Hispanic. Too much of our criminal justice rhetoric is focused on retribution and punishment and shame rather than on rehabilitation and compassion. There are deep cultural reasons for this, going back to America’s Puritan roots, and also racist ones, going back to the idea that people of certain races are incorrigible, ineducable, beasts in their essential nature. These ideas help to explain why America has such a high incarceration rate and such dreadful prisons and jails, and why brutal mistreatment and prison rape have been so long tolerated: criminals, according to this logic, deserve all the punishment they receive, including extrajudicial punishment like rape and assault.

We need to move away from this punitive thinking, and we need to avoid the easy outrage that demands that the unfair suffering heaped on black youths be heaped on a white youth too. I would like young violent offenders of all races to have the opportunities Wahlberg has had, and I would like for them, as non-violent adults who have demonstrated their decent citizenship, to be granted forgiveness. If you have served your juvenile sentence and gone on to a productive adult life free of criminality, that ought to be enough. That ought to be the whole point.