By: Marsha Levick, Deputy Director & Chief Counsel, Juvenile Law Center
and Scott Budnick, Film producer and Founder, The Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC)
Mark Wahlberg has a major problem stemming from his days as a minor. Now 43, he is asking Massachusetts' Governor Deval Patrick for a pardon for assaults committed as a troubled 16 year-old in Boston. "It 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," said Wahlberg in an interview.
His crime was violent, and he left at least one victim seriously injured. Like Wahlberg, millions of youth are arrested each year in the United States. Unlike Wahlberg, most of them (95 percent) commit non-violent offenses. Yet 100 percent of these youth (including Wahlberg) face the same problem -- a paper trail of court documents that closes doors, reduces opportunities, and haunts them forever.
The juvenile justice system is meant to accomplish several important goals:
1. Protect community safety;
2. Provide restitution to victims of crime;
3. Hold young people accountable for their actions; and
4. Provide rehabilitation and guidance to troubled youth so they can become productive, taxpaying members of their communities.
However, as designed now, the justice system serves to prevent many young people that opportunity. The problem: court records for minors follow them throughout life, creating major roadblocks to success. Few lawmakers realize the serious collateral consequences of laws that prohibit or make it difficult to expunge those records.
Although Wahlberg was tried as an adult, many who are tried as juveniles wrongly assume that their records will be sealed and kept private. It is often believed that this separate justice system for children and teens drops a protective veil over youth, shielding them from the consequences of "adult" criminal activity -- which can lead to economic, social and political marginalization. In fact, juvenile court records can be extraordinarily difficult for anyone to overcome. These old records live on to create barriers to education, military service, housing, and as Wahlberg recently found out, business, community service and employment opportunities.
A recent study and national scorecard released by Juvenile Law Center, Failed Policies, Forfeited Futures: A Nationwide Scorecard on Juvenile Records, highlights how common and widespread this juvenile records crisis has become. For kids tried as juveniles, the report underscores the exact problem Mark Wahlberg is facing: collateral consequences stemming from the inability to easily expunge youth records. In fact, the vast majority of states not only fail to protect highly sensitive information contained in juvenile court records, but most permanently maintain them, making it difficult, if not impossible, for individuals to move past their youthful misconduct. Some states even sell this information to for-profit companies who make the information available to anyone for a small fee. Or worse yet, some states make it available for free by posting it online.
The scorecard rated all 50 states and the District of Columbia against a gold standard for records protection; the national average was only 3 stars out of a maximum 5 star rating. Massachusetts, where Wahlberg is seeking his pardon, scored even lower, receiving a 2 star rating. California is set to enact a new law, making sealing juvenile records more available -- but not for teens over 14 who committed felonies, and the records remain available to law enforcement and district attorneys in certain cases.
Ill-considered laws that fail to protect our children's privacy and future potential must be changed. How can we expect young people to become successful adults if we permanently mark them with a lifelong scarlet letter? Data shows that most youth who come in contact with the justice system do so for minor mistakes; some have mental health issues, or are dealing with difficulties at home or at school and need help. Instead of providing them with the help and rehabilitation needed to get back on track, too often, the juvenile justice system creates major and sometimes permanent roadblocks to success. These barriers are more severe for Black and Hispanic teens who are arrested and prosecuted at a much higher rate than their white counterparts.
None of us are the same people we were as teenagers. We grew up. Mark Wahlberg grew up, too. But he can't seem to outgrow his past, despite his successful career as an actor and businessman and his efforts to provide guidance for young people facing similar struggles he did in his youth.
The road to adulthood is rarely straight. Kids make mistakes -- even terrible ones that hurt others. The question is what do we want for them, permanent retribution or permanent improvement? Research shows that the vast majority of youth grow out of the delinquent behavior. Mark Wahlberg, like so many other young people, has rightly been held accountable for his actions. But no one wins by making him or anyone else pay that price forever.
Today, he is asking for "official public redemption." His success and celebrity will likely earn him that. But success comes in many packages. We hope Mark Wahlberg gets the pardon he seeks. But let's not stop there. Let's give all our kids a second chance.