John Grisham, a lawyer famous for his legal thrillers who has advocated for a more reasonable approach to crime sentencing and is on the Board of Directors for the Innocence Project, has caused a stir with his comments on some men who watch child porn:
“We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who’ve never harmed anybody, would never touch a child,” he said in an exclusive interview to promote his latest novel Gray Mountain which is published next week.
“But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn.”
Mr. Grisham referred to a person he knew from law school who got himself in trouble regarding 16 year old girls:
“His drinking was out of control, and he went to a website. It was labelled ‘sixteen year old wannabee hookers or something like that’. And it said ’16-year-old girls’. So he went there. Downloaded some stuff – it was 16 year old girls who looked 30.
“He shouldn’t ’a done it. It was stupid, but it wasn’t 10-year-old boys. He didn’t touch anything. And God, a week later there was a knock on the door: ‘FBI!’ and it was sting set up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to catch people – sex offenders – and he went to prison for three years.”
“There’s so many of them now. There’s so many ‘sex offenders’ – that’s what they’re called – that they put them in the same prison. Like they’re a bunch of perverts, or something; thousands of ’em. We’ve gone nuts with this incarceration,” he added in his loft-office in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Reaction has been negative, and somewhat predictable. Think Progress was quick to condemn. Others have gone beyond condemnation and gone straight to calling for government intervention. Rosie O’Donnell has hinted that he should be targeted by the police:
(…) “Did John Grisham feel like these people needed a champion and he was it? I actually was horrified by what he said, as was most of the country because now he’s issued an apology… Nobody accidentally stumbles onto child pornography. If I were the police, I’d look at John Grisham’s hard drive right now.”
Despite the rage, Grisham has had defenders, including Radley Balko of the Washington Post:
Grisham certainly could have chosen his words better. But he isn’t wrong, and the invective he’s receiving right now is both misinformed and wildly over the top. There are Twitter users calling him a pervert, or for his home to be raided by the FBI. It isn’t all that different than suggesting that people who criticize the drug laws must be doing or selling drugs.
Take this quote out of context, and one could make Grisham look like he thinks the biggest problem with the criminal justice system is that old white guys are getting locked up for looking at child porn. But context is important. Grisham has spent a great deal of time, money, and influence advocating for criminal justice reform. He helped found the Mississippi Innocence Project, and sits on the board of directors for the Innocence Project in New York. He wrote a nonfiction book about a wrongful conviction, and helped another get published. He testified before Congress about the need for reforming the forensics system, addressing the problems he’s seen firsthand in Mississippi.
Grisham, feeling the heat, apologized:
Anyone who harms a child for profit or pleasure, or who in any way participates in child pornography—online or otherwise—should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
My comments made two days ago during an interview with the British newspaper “The Telegraph” were in no way intended to show sympathy for those convicted of sex crimes, especially the sexual molestation of children. I can think of nothing more despicable.
I regret having made these comments, and apologize to all.
Even the “law school buddy” he was referencing, a Gulfport, MS personal injury lawyer named Michael Hollemann, has stated that he deserved his punishment:
Speaking to the Daily Mail, Mr Holleman, once one of Mississippi’s top criminal lawyers, said that did something illegal and it was right to have received punishment.
“I did something wrong and I don’t have a bit of resentment about the way I was treated,” he said.
“It’s illegal and should be punished. If it’s a crime, it’s a crime. There’s a violation of the right of privacy involved. There’s people now who, because of the internet, who are making child pornography so they can share it across the internet. There are good reasons for it to be illegal and punished.”
It’s important to note one thing: no one involved, including myself, is stating that downloading child pornography should not be punished. It should be, without a doubt. Plus, even Grisham admits he spoke poorly.
However, the larger context of Grisham’s overall point is one about inflexibility. In Hollemann’s case, he was looking at a site of women advertised as 16. It is illegal – in both the United States and Canada1, where the sting was conducted – to look at pornography involving anyone under 18. But the age of consent in many states is 16; that means that some states have determined that 16 year olds are mature enough to decide when they want to have sex. We currently sentence looking at a 17 year old – such as former porn star Traci Lords, as noted by Balko – as harshly as looking at children half that age, despite the fact that that 17 year old can enlist and fight in a war if they want.
Of course, Holleman was guilty of looking at a site that clearly advertised 16 year olds. There are no provisions in the law as it stands for looking at something that’s not advertised as such. There’s also no allowance for minors looking at minors (e.g.: sexting). This has allowed a few attorneys general to make grandstanding pledges to arrest and charge all of the kids involved in cases where sexting has gone wrong – such as images being leaked, be it maliciously or via hacks like the recent Snapchat hack – with either possession of or manufacturing child pornography.
In both cases, the issue isn’t just the threat of jail time, it’s being permanently branded with a scarlet letter via the databases created by Megan’s Law. The intent behind the law is noble, but the consequences have been people being branded as heinous sex criminals – forever limiting their ability to get and hold a job, travel, or even live peacefully – for accidentally downloading child pornography, or for sleeping with the wrong teenager in the wrong state who has the wrong father. The ends do not always justify the means.
On a troubling note at a societal level is the call for John Grisham to be raided by the FBI. The fact that such a call flaunts the very purpose of the First Amendment – that government cannot punish people for their opinions or statements – is flagrantly obvious, but many people would be willing to trample the Constitution If It Protects Just One Child™. It’s easy to laugh at Rosie O’Donnell because she’s Rosie O’Donnell, but any time someone gets busted for anything relating to child pornography, there’s an arms race of sorts to see who can think of the best way to punish the perp. Lifetime jail term! Chemical castration! Execution! Mob mentalities accomplish nothing.
This is a bipartisan issue as well. The left is generally concerned with protecting victims, while the right is generally concerned with removing society’s unfit, but they both agree that children must be protected. This is noble. But the calls to raid John Grisham show why it’s very hard to get moderation on this issue: any calls for such are perceived as the person in question proclaiming that child pornography is a wonderful thing, and to Hell with the kids. Nothing could be further from the truth, but it makes even agreeable goals such as fixing Megan’s Law or adding provisions for things such as sexting leaks virtually impossible to reach.
John Grisham wasn’t railing in favour of child porn, he was really coming out against mandatory minimum sentencing, which is consistent with his statements on this subject for years. We can’t shred the Constitution because it’s popular. In the meantime, I urge people who have the welfare of exploited children in mind to consider supporting or donating to the Rape, Abuse and Incest Network or to the Polaris Project.
1 – Canada’s federal age of consent laws – key here, draw a line between regular sexual activity – where the age of consent was raised from 14 to 16 in 2008 – and that which “exploits” the person in question, with listed examples being that of pornography, prostitution, or anyone in a position of trust, e.g. teachers, caretakers, coaches, etc. Source: Canadian Department of Justice.