The US spends billions of dollars locking human beings in cages. We imprison more people than any other country in the history of the Earth. Over 2 million people are in prison in this country on any given day. We have a higher rate of incarceration than any other country on earth. We lock up more people than China, which has many times our population. While we spend billions to keep humans in cages, we vastly under-fund child protection agencies, schools, summer jobs, and every other program which might keep our children safe. One study showed that over 70% of people in prison started out in the juvenile system. Instead of protecting our children, we punish them.
Every year, almost 250,000 children are tried, sentenced, or imprisoned as adults in the United States. About 2,500 people in US prisons are serving life without parole, imposed for crimes they committed as children. The US is the ONLY country in the world that sentences children to die in prison. These statistics can become mind-numbing. Jean Trounstine’s new book, Boy with a Knife, humanizes these numbers by focusing on one child: Karter Kane Reed, who was sentenced to life.
Karter Reed’s teen years come straight out of West Side Story. A white kid from a deteriorating, working class Massachusetts town, his father sent to prison on drug charges, his mother trying to make enough money to survive. In 1993, Karter (then 16) and his friends (their group is so small and disorganized that I refuse to label them as a “gang”) have multiple confrontations with other kids—over nothing of importance, except their “honor.” One of these confrontations escalates and Karter and two of his friends track down a boy named Jason and several of his friends at their high school. After something like a rumble between the Sharks and the Jets fizzles (Karter comes armed with a piece of pipe; one of his friends is armed with a bat), Karter and his friends find their targets in a classroom. During the ensuing scuffle, the vice principal takes away Karter’s pipe. But when Karter finds Jason standing nearby, Karter pulls out the knife he always carries in his pocket, and stabs Jason. Hours later, Jason is pronounced dead.
We should not judge a person by the worst day of their life. Yet this is what sentences of life without parole do. Karter did not receive a sentence of life without parole; he always had the theoretical possibility that one day he would be paroled. However, when he was sentenced, the country was still in thrall to the myth of the “super-predator,” and “tough on crime” was the reigning philosophy of criminal justice. It was unclear if Karter would ever get out of prison. The strength of Trounstine’s book is her description of how Karter transformed himself in prison, from a scared, disoriented child, into a thoughtful man, dedicated to demonstrating to the world that he deserves a second chance.
Karter dedicates himself to self-improvement. He takes GED classes and is awarded a degree. He enrolls in every program available to him in prison. He volunteers to work with at-risk youth. He reads, voraciously. He studies the law. And he writes. Karter writes letters to anyone he thinks might be able to help, including hundreds of letters to Trounstine. He avoids trouble in prison, receiving essentially no disciplinary reports during his entire term.
However, Karter’s hopes for parole are impacted by events beyond his control: Mitt Romney becomes governor. New members of the parole board are appointed. Duval Patrick becomes governor, and appoints another set of members. There is a scandal when a parolee commits a headline-grabbing murder. After a series of twists, turns, and setbacks, Karter is finally is paroled. (This is not a spoiler, as this fact is right on the back of the book.)
The end of the book is equally enlightening: the barriers Karter faces after he is paroled—20 years after being convicted—are nearly overwhelming. He went in as a child, and came out as a man, but a man who had never held a job, rented an apartment, lived on a budget, used a computer or smartphone, or had a relationship with a woman. Prison had prepared Karter for none of this. Yet, he made it, even making straight As in college.
For me, Boy with a Knife is further evidence that the world is not binary. Every day I deal with people who commit murder and other crimes—some of those crimes are far more heinous than Karter’s. But all these people are human beings. The world is not made up of two groups of people: one that follows the law, and one made up of sub-humans who lack any moral compass. Rather, the world is made up of people who engage in a continuum of behavior. We all make mistakes; some of them have tragic consequences. But even those who commit murder are still very human. The sooner we understand the humanity we all share, the better off our world will be. Boy with a Knife contributes to that understanding.