What writing a book about a juvenile lifer taught me

In April, 2016, my book Boy With A Knife: The Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice was published by Ig Publishing. But getting the book into print was hardly the beginning of my getting to know Karter Reed, a once juvenile lifer, who eventually won parole by suing and then settling with the Parle Board in Massachusetts. It was hardly the beginning of my coming to understand now firmly held beliefs: that our country must not send youth to adult prisons and that as a nation, we have come late to the compassion table

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Karter Reed killed a boy when he was sixteen and while there is no excusing the tragedy that his murder of Jason Robinson incurred—for both Jason and Karter’s friends and famiies and for the communities they hailed from—he was a child who ended up serving time in a prison with adults, subject to rape, violence, with difficult barriers to get more than his GED, therapy and age-appropriate programming. Karter was like more than 200,000 youth who each year are tried, sentenced, or imprisoned as adults across the United States. On any given day, 6,000 youth are detained or incarcerated in adult jails and prisons. We know that punishment is more severe for kids of color all across the board and that housing kids with adults creates more mental health as well as safety issues.

I learned all this slowly and much of it through Karter as well as through six years of digging into trial transcripts, books, articles and case studies. This began in 2007, when Karter first wrote me from prison. He asked me, a college professor and writer, if I could help a friend with parole. We wrote over one hundred letters to each other, and I learned the truth about the boy, who in news articles from the early 1990s, had been condemned as a “monster,” carrying out a “methodical crime.” Instead of a monster, I discovered a fallible human being, a teenager at the time of his crime, who had made a serious, life-changing mistake, but had spent his time in prison maturing into a man who thought each day about the life he had taken, while at the same time fighting the unfair and arbitrary justice of prison officials and the parole board.

Through knowing Reed and through my six years of work understanding his case and others like him, I came to see that he would have done fine if tried as a juvenile. And the country would have been safe because he has shown he did have the power to change and was not equally culpable as an adult might have been if convicted of murder. Research has shown us that children are not little adults. Their brains are still developing and this leads to the kind of impulsive, erratic behavior that sends them diving headfirst into dangerous risks because risk can also provide great rewards. They hang out with the “wrong kind of kids” and make poor choices be in storming into a classroom to finish a fight or carrying an open knife to school in a pant’s pocket. As scientists know adolescents mature at varied rates. It is teenagers’ heightened vulnerability to seek rewards and fulfill their need for excitement that drives risky behavior. Karter believed he was standing up for a friend and by finishing a fight, that he would be a heo. How many teens are driven by misguided loyalty to their friends!

When the book came out there were protests from the community where Karter’s crime occurred. The family did not want my book published  because they were afraid that I glorified a killer. But in fact, the book and much of the work about kids like Karter, aims to show that there are many victims who suffer when juveniles create harm. The intent is never to excuse murder. There were also many letters I received from people thankful to hear that Karter had received a second chance with parole, and some who lived in the area, were grateful to learn that kids can change and in fact do.

Our country has come late to giving kids who are sentenced to life second chances. Supreme court cases and changing understandings have helped us along but we have a long way to go. As I wrote in an article for Truthout this year, in “the first-ever national survey of victims’ views on safety and justice, published in August 2016 by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, crime victims overwhelmingly said they support spending money on treatment and crime prevention instead of on prisons and jails.”

Karter Reed is doing well these days. He has earned an Associates Degree (4.0 average!), has a job where he is a manager, owns a house, has developed good relationships with many in his family, and has a fledgling relationship. He constantly reminds me that he is not different from many of the other young men and women who are still behind bars. As the year comes to an end, I urge us all to recommit our efforts to help kids get out of prison. It is not what will help they heal, help communities heal, and as we have shown time and time again, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

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