John Grisham is (partly) right

I still remember John Grisham’s hypocritical moral crusade against Oliver Stone’s last good movie, so I can’t deny feeling some shadenfreude watching him squirm over comments he made in an interview with The Telegraph:

“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.

The thing is, Grisham has a point.  Not so much about child pornography (I don’t care how drunk you are or how much your life is falling apart, you there is no excuse for looking at this stuff) but about America’s addiction to incarceration.

The United States has by far the highest incarceration rate on earth, a phenomenon that really began in the 1980s.  And many of the people in American jails are not violent offenders – or, at least, they weren’t before they were locked up.

Grisham makes a fair point, that people who access child pornography are in many cases being punished more severely than people who actually abuse children. But by and large, the incarceration explosion is because of the unworkable, destructive “War on Drugs”:

The prison population across the U.S. starts off relatively low in the late 1970s, with most states having about 130 to 260 prisoners per 100,000 people.

By the late 1990s, incarceration rates have risen to more than 600 prisoners per 100,000 people in some states, including Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. By the 2000s, every state in America had seen its imprisonment rate rise significantly.

The prisoners included in the statistics are under state or federal jurisdiction and have a sentence of more than one year.

The War on Drugs, which led to long prison sentences for drug offenders, is largely considered a massive failure that led to prison overcrowding without significantly changing U.S. drug abuse rates.

Fareed Zakaria writes for TIME:

“Drug convictions went from 15 inmates per 100,000 adults in 1980 to 148 in 1996, an almost tenfold increase. More than half of America’s federal inmates today are in prison on drug convictions. In 2009 alone, 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges, more than were arrested on assault or larceny charges. And 4 of 5 of those arrests were simply for possession.”

That’s what Grisham really should have focused on. When the full interview is published on Saturday, we’ll see if he did.

Update: much more from the great Radley Balko, including an acknowledgement of Grisham’s laudable work for criminal justice reform, and a response to his “progressive” critics.

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