As best-selling novelist John Grisham prepares to publish his new legal thriller, he argues America’s prison system has run out of control
America is wrongly jailing far too many people for viewing child pornography, the best-selling legal novelist John Grisham has told The Telegraph in a wide-ranging attack on the US judicial system and the country’s sky-high prison rates.
Mr Grisham, 59, argued America’s judges had “gone crazy” over the past 30 years, locking up far too many people, from white collar criminals like the businesswoman Martha Stewart, to black teenagers on minor drugs charges and – he added – those who had viewed child porn online.
“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.”
The author of legal thrillers such as The Firm and A Time to Kill who has sold more than 275m books during his 25-year career, cited the case of a “good buddy from law school” who was caught up in a Canadian child porn sting operation a decade ago as an example of excessive sentencing.
“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.
Asked about the argument that viewing child pornography fuelled the industry of abuse needed to create the pictures, Mr Grisham said that current sentencing policies failed to draw a distinction between real-world abusers and those who downloaded content, accidentally or otherwise.
“I have no sympathy for real paedophiles,” he said, “God, please lock those people up. But so many of these guys do not deserve harsh prison sentences, and that’s what they’re getting,” adding sentencing disparities between blacks and whites was likely to be the subject of his next book.
There are currently some 2.2m people in jail in the US – or more than 750 per 100,000 population – which makes the US by far the heaviest user of prison sentences in the world. By contrast, Britain imprisons just 154 per 100,000 population.
However Mr Grisham’s remarks are likely to anger child-rights campaigners that over the past decade have successfully lobbied the US Congress to demand tougher sentences for those who access child pornography online.
Since 2004 average sentences for those who possess – but do not produce – child pornography have nearly doubled in the US, from 54 months in 2004 to 95 months in 2010, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
However the issue of sex-offender sentencing has sparked some debate in the US legal community after it emerged that in some cases those who viewed child porn online were at risk of receiving harsher sentences than those who committed physical acts against children.
A provocative article in the libertarian magazine Reason headlined “Looking v Touching” argued last February that something was “seriously wrong with a justice system in which people who look at images of child rape can be punished more severely than people who rape children”.
And in January this year the US Supreme Court was unable to resolve a debate over whether a man who viewed images of a child rape should be as liable to pay the same financial compensation to the victim as the original perpetrator of the crime.
Mr Grisham, who earned $17m (£10.7) from his work last year, is still one of America’s highest paid novelists and is a self-declared Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton in her failed 2008 bid to win the White House.
He has waded into political issues in the past, writing newspaper columns against the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, the death penalty as well as serving on the board of the Innocence Project, a campaign group that uses DNA analysis to end miscarriages of justice.
In the interview to promote Gray Mountain, a fast-paced thriller in which a young lawyer takes on ‘Big Coal’ as it destroys the rural landscape of Virginia, Mr Grisham spoke freely on a range of subjects from politics to publishing.
Among the highlights were his contention that Barack Obama had presided over “amateur hour” at the White House during his six years as president, and that Amazon.com was seeking to establish an effective online monopoly that could ultimately destroy the paperback books business.