Over the course of eight days in 1978, a 15-year-old terror named Willie Bosket managed to satisfy his curiosity about what it felt like to kill someone. He did this by purchasing a .22 handgun from his mother’s boyfriend, paid for with funds obtained from robbing sleeping passengers in New York City’s subway system, and shooting his next two robbery victims in the head.
Bosket considered the experience to be nothing special, according to Fox Butterfield’s 1996 study, All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence. But his case soon became a focus of public outrage. At the time, New York prosecutors had no mechanism for trying such a young defendant as an adult; Bosket was facing a maximum of five years in the state’s juvenile system. The furor over the light sentence prompted a new state law that allowed offenders as young as 13 to be tried in adult court for violent crimes. “The New York law marked a break from the Progressive tradition, which since the turn of the century had maintained that children were different from adults and capable of rehabilitation,” notes Jeff Kunerth in his book Trout: A True Story of Murder, Teens, and the Death Penalty.
Over the next 15 years—in a tough-on-crime frenzy that extended throughout the Reagan revolution and well into the Clinton era—lawmakers in other states had their own Bosket moments, granting prosecutors the authority to “direct file” adult charges against juveniles without first requiring a transfer proceeding before a juvenile court judge. They also increased drug penalties; cut prison programs that were supposed to provide skills and education to help offenders return to society; slowed or abolished early release and parole processes; and embarked on a prison-building boom that seemed to be driven not by rational policy, but by lurid press accounts of remorseless, baby-faced killers and predictions about a coming wave of adolescent “superpredators” that never arrived.
The long-term consequences of this rage to punish have been severe. It’s often said that the United States has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world, but what truly distinguishes the American experiment in mass imprisonment is the length of the sentences involved. We’re good at not just locking up offenders but throwing away the key. As a result, despite declining crime rates, many states are wrestling with budget-devouring prison populations, including a significant number of inmates who were locked up in their late teens or early twenties and have been inside for decades. (Approximately 2,300 of them are serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles.) In recent years, fiscal pressures and Supreme Court decisions have prompted a re-evaluation of the reliance on stiff sentences—and have even renewed efforts to implement programs designed to aid parolees in “re-entry,” if not rehabilitation. Two recent books by journalists, reporting on aspects of this shift from opposite coasts, suggest that the pendulum of criminal justice is indeed swinging back toward the possibility of redemption—albeit clumsily and haltingly.
The specter of Willie Bosket looms over Trout, which tracks the downward journey of three adolescents involved in the 1991 robbery of a Trout Auto Parts store in Pensacola, FL, during which a clerk named Billy Wayne Coker was shot and killed. His killer, 17-year-old Patrick Bonifay, didn’t know Coker and may have been hired by his uncle to murder another employee, whom the uncle blamed for getting him fired from the store. The homicide was subject to different interpretations over time, and Bonifay has offered conflicting motives for his actions, but there’s no escaping the essential stupidity and viciousness of the crime. Kunerth describes it as “a premeditated mistaken-identity murder for money inflicted upon an unintended victim who was shot to death while begging for his life.”