Was John Grisham Right? How Child Porn Laws Fuel Mass Incarceration

grisham

Popular author John Grisham made headlines this week for speaking out against harsh sentences for child pornography, citing the recent prosecution of a friend for downloading child porn. His friend was sentenced to three years in prison for downloading pornography that claimed to depict 16-year-old females. Predictably there was an immediate backlash, with people accusing him of sympathizing with dangerous pedophiles and even going so far as to find his views an implicit admission of his own child porn fetish. Disappointingly, Grisham then backtracked within hours and entirely took back his statements. However, the extremely negative public reaction to his statements and the social pressure to conform to popular values only highlight the harsh reality of the deranged era of sex panic that fuels mass incarceration today.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Grisham made some reasonable points, despite some of his phrasing and tone. He pointed out that there are many men incarcerated for downloading child porn who would never abuse or have sexual contact with a child; substance use and compulsive pornography consumption can lead people down a path to downloading child porn when they otherwise might not, often entirely by accident; many people convicted of child porn are accused of downloading porn depicting or representing post-pubescent teenagers; sex offender registries are inflated one-size-fits-all solutions to complex and disparate offenses and issues; mass incarceration is a real problem in the US, with exponential rises in prison populations despite falls in violent crime.

Reporter Peter Foster adds more data to his article on Grisham that backs up his claims:

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…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.

We can see that this explosion in sentencing for child pornography possession follows the trend of mass incarceration. With the opposition to the war on drugs increasing in popularity, there is a growing consensus that we need to address the problems of over-incarceration and overcrowded prisons. Despite this cultural trend, the support for increased punitive measures for sex crimes has remained on the upward trajectory that has been around since the 1980s.

This is evident in the reaction to Grisham’s comments. He has been almost universally panned and derided for questioning the popular belief that downloading child pornography deserves a punishment of many years in prison plus lifetime registration as a sex offender. Even the usually-progressive Think Progress published an article by Jessica Goldstein that supports such conservative values that have lead to increasingly harsh sex crime legislation: fetishizing a false idea of childhood innocence, using pejorative language that perpetuates a concept of deviance that has historically been used to demonize and criminalize queer and trans folk, using the logic of black-and-white thinking to erase any nuance in unique experiences. All of these ways of thinking are what has fueled mass incarceration. Similarly, the war on drugs was waged in the name of children and families that reinforced patriarchal, racist, and classist notions of criminality.

I have written about the devastation of child porn legislation before in an article about Jesse Ryan Loskarn, a Washington chief-of-staff who committed suicide after being arrested for downloading child pornography. Loskarn attributed his offense in part to his own experiences of sexual abuse as a child. However, the public shame and inevitable criminalization that would surely cause a bleak future of isolation, unemployment, and depression proved too much to bear, and he made the decision to end his life.

These are very concrete and tragic side effects to a cultural consensus to punish child porn and other sex offenses disproportionate to the harm inflicted. My summary of the effects of child porn legislation bear repeating:

So what happens when someone is arrested for possession of child pornography? They feel as if their lives have been ruined, that there is no going back to a normal life, no way out, no hope for understanding or empathy from anyone in their lives. They are immediately fired from their jobs. Human relationships crumble, and families are shattered. They are almost invariably convicted and sent to prison and are often placed in imposed solitary confinement, which may be physically safe but can be psychologically damaging. In prison, child pornography offenders are the lowest on the totem pole, both ostracized and targeted. They are often subjected to abuse from inmates and staff alike and are sometimes even killed. Having a same-sex victim comes with its own baggage and set of biases, as one now becomes a double offender, transgressing social boundaries of age as well as gender.

Once released from prison, child porn offenders are placed on a sex offender registry, many for the rest of their lives. Currently nearly 750,000 people are listed as sex offenders on the public registry. The rules of the registry make it nearly impossible to find work or housing, and this is even harder for those on parole and probation. They are publicly listed on the Internet with a photo, address and description of the offense, which leaves the offenders and their families vulnerable to harassment, violence, and sometimes murder. Recently two registrants were beaten and killed in New Hampshire for being publicly listed as sex offenders. A registrant in South Carolina and his wife were killed by a white supremacist in their homes, once again for being listed on the public registry. Suicide as a consequence of sex offender registries is also common. Last year, in a profoundly tragic situation, a 15-year-old boy in Alabama hanged himself shortly after being arrested for streaking during a high school football game. While there are many factors to suicide, it seems that the school’s explicit threat of prison and sex offender status greatly contributed to his death. Sadly, these cases are not rare.

And it doesn’t look like things are getting better. Many child porn possessions receive harsher sentencing than for hands-on offenses or violent sexual assault of a child, despite no evidence that such possession correlates to or increases the likelihood of future hands-on offenses. Therapists in California are now required to report to law enforcement any client that admits to having viewed child pornography. Judges are handing out 500-year sentences. Scores of men are getting sentenced to 10 years in prison for sexual assault of an imaginary minor in unethical and unconstitutional undercover sex stings where there is no real minor to be abused. Hundreds of gay men are being entrapped and sent to prison for cruising in public. Law enforcement officers are now photographing teenage boys’ erect penises to more effectively prosecute them for consensual sexting with a peer.

If we, as a society, are gearing up to earnestly fight mass incarceration, this must include a long, hard, critical look at the way that we conceptualize and punish sex-related offenses. We can’t reduce prison populations if we merely replace drug offenders with sex offenders. Many sex offenses are bad—very bad— and shifting our focus will help implement smart solutions that actually prevent harmful sexual assault. Handing over more scapegoats to the government won’t decrease the power of the state to inflict violence. We shouldn’t immediately rail against John Grisham and others for questioning how sex offenses are legislated; we should stop, listen, think, and talk to each other about our complicated and visceral feelings and thoughts about sex.

You may also like...

  • Anna Lucia

    Oh what is next? Pedophilia is now a lifestyle choice. If i could get my hands on you pedos, you would be quartered and left out to rot.

    • ShellyStow

      Anna, you prove his point. Any attempt to have a rational discussion on this subject is met with rabid hysteria and wild, unfounded personal attacks and accusations. If you disagree with his points, rebut them with logic of your own.

      Actually, research is indicating that pedophilia is not a choice at all. Acting on it is, but it is also a crime, and nowhere does Mr. Grisham or Mr. Extein suggest it shouldn’t be.

    • Cotton

      Define “pedo”. Define your terms. That’s the beginning of any sort of discussion. What is, in your estimation, a “pedo”? Precisely.

    • Thanks for proving why we don’t need public notification of sex offenders.

    • Virginia Hall

      suggest you get that craniorectal inversion looked at and treated. While you are at it, brush up on your critical thinking skills… and know that “if I could get my hands on you” is considered assault in many states.

      • Mitzi Arnold

        Now Virginia I’m beginning to think you just aren’t telling the truth about being a Christian! tsk tsk tsk shame on you!

    • Cotton

      This has a familiar ring to it. What if, per chance, being a so-called “pedophile” wasn’t a choice? What if it were like being black, or Jewish, or born with a cleft pallet? Suppose we could come up with pre-natal test for this condition (or any of the other “conditions”)? Would you be comfortable just ripping the children from their mothers’ wombs, quartering them, and leaving them out to rot?

      • Anna Lucia

        your line of reasoning is pure tripe..you imbecile. Cotton..

  • Paul Hammond

    Thanks for this courageous article

  • Too bad Grisham backpedaled. He just said what most people in the CJ system believe but are afraid to say publicly. But Grisham has books to sell so he backed off.

    • Cotton

      At the very least, we got a brief glimpse at what the literati is “really” thinking about this issue. And that may be satisfaction enough for the time being. When cooler minds eventually prevail (and they will), what Grisham was attempting to articulate will triumph over rabid lunacy.

  • Cotton

    Very well reasoned article, Andrew. I especially appreciate how you articulate the tendency of current bloviators to utilize the exact same language once used to demonize and marginalize the “queer” community. And yet these folks imagine themselves “progressives”. Poppycock! They are progressively promoting a screed that has little regard for either the innocence of youth or the culpability of abusers. But they are actually little more than Pharisees with stones in their hands.

    • Jennifer

      Progressives aren’t progressive if they get furious over child exploitation?

      • Cotton

        Progressives aren’t progressives if they think that beating the hell out of someone for addictive behavior is either going to 1) correct the individual’s behavior or 2) stop future incidents of the same behavior by others. For all the screaming hysteria of the last 20 years, there has been NO reduction in the incidents of sexually-based crimes against children and NO reduction in the proliferation of child pornography. Sounds like regression to me….certainly not progress. But, similar to the outcome in the “war on drugs”, lives are being destroyed all over the place.

  • Lance Mitaro

    You get castigated with the controversy for telling the truth. No one should be going to prison for having pictures of a crime. Regardless of what the crime in the photo is.

    • Jennifer

      Unless of course downloading such images IS a fucking crime.

  • marie

    I keep wishing that Grisham had chosen his words more carefully and made thoughtful points instead of seemingly bumping into good points but when I see Anna Lucia’s very funny –though bloodthirsty– response to THIS carefully reasoned piece, it probably doesn’t matter how he said it. The hysterics will be hysterical.

  • fima

    I came to US as Jewish political refugee on
    Human Rights from former USSR. In US I got another title: predatory sex offender
    for p..rn possession.

    You may read my story written by Irish writer Brian Rothery

    http://estrinyefim.newsvine.com/_news/2010/07/29/4779710-mitsubishi-electric-automation-abandons-employee

    Here is article from Wired Magazine written after interview with me

    http://archive.wired.com/techbiz/it/news/2004/05/63391?currentPage=all

    I wrote this comparison:

    http://estrinyefim.newsvine.com/_news/2008/07/15/1667739-a-comparission-between-soviet-jews-and-sex-offenders-in-us

  • OverSite

    Of course he’s right. 30 years in prison for 62mb of data you found on some seedy website is absolutely absurd.

  • James

    Its very sad to read some of these comments that you all have made about Mr.Grisham He is not only stepping up for the sex offender but his friend. Now that’s truth faith. Now all of us have sin, whether its carnal knowledge or what its sin. Maybe we all need to use a little Christianity in this life and most of us wouldn’t be as smart as we think we are. I am a sex offender myself but it is what it is until it is what it isn’t. With that said don’t you think don’t you think people need a little more of Jesus Christ in their life.
    Sure we all can beat and knock others just like we knock leaders but let God be true and every man a liar or is that statement not allowed in society any more or is it offensive.
    Mr. Grshman has his comments and speaks boldly about them, he should not apologize about it as he is speaking up for the sex offender or the one that has sexuality immorality….Did Jesus say… healthy people don’t need a doctor? These kings and rulers of today and this Supreme Court People are no better than the other person. Learn to strive for a Christian life and put it into practice in your life. I would rather believe in Jesus’s words than man’s words anytime wouldn’t you.

  • #childpornography
    Conflict is the essential core of a free and open society. If one were to project the democratic way of life in the form of a musical score, its major theme would be the harmony of dissonance. My function is to raise questions that agitate, that break through the accepted pattern. We are a nation of VICTIMS brought to you by our GOVERNMENT legislators who are unable to do anything productive in Congress but find bipartisanship in child bills. Those who profit from child abuse is the multi BILLION dollar Child Abuse Industry that consists of THOUSANDS of ORGANIZATIONS with high paid CEO’s and staff all full of nefarious individuals that must convince both us and their victims that everything is abuse. News media, therapists, prosecutors, judges, lawyers and sex police. Thousands of jobs depend on maximizing claims of abuse.

    All the research that law enforcement uses to put people in jail has come under fire from those very researchers and a hand full of judges who did their own research not relying on, “what everybody knows”. A group of academics convinced Law Enforcement of the harms associated with children using pre internet research and they did so on a post internet society. Prior to the Internet, a large child pornography collection would have been indicative of an enthusiast of long-standing, somebody who devoted much time, effort and money to amassing their collection, but the Internet has allowed individuals to download huge amounts of material in a very short space of time like in hours for FREE. In other words, a collection of 5,000 images reflects the speed and quality of an individual’s Internet connection rather than the effort they expended to painstakingly build a collection over years possibly decades.

    When someone searches on a Peer to Peer (P2P) filesharing software it typically works as follows: initially, the user downloads a software program onto his own computer or Internet-enabled device that permits the individual to share and download files from the P2P network. Upon installation, the software typically creates two folders on the user’s computer by default: an “incomplete” folder, which contains pending downloads, and a “shared” folder, which contains fully downloaded files which are not readily available to the user unless they know how to search for them; until then the file remains hidden to the user in the, “AppData file”. Any files downloaded to, or other files placed in, the shared folder are immediately made available for sharing with all other users on the P2P network. When someone searches for lets say the word “teen” they are flooded with images to download: however they don’t know if the images are what they asked for and they don’t know until they open the file and by then its too late law enforcement software has already pick up the Ip address of the downloader. Then law enforcement goes to a secret FISA court to obtain a search warrant for the IP address.

    Thousands are in prison based on those researchers opinions which they now say are wrong and faulty. Tell that to the people behind bars and the family’s that were ruined kids left fatherless and in some cases both fatherless and motherless where their children are then trafficked by child services. Who will pay their creditors? Take care of their children? Who will pay as Mortgages are left unpaid along with other debit? The TAXPAYERS will!! The taxpayer burden to house those convicted are between 35 and 45 THOUSAND dollars a year. All this brought about by images and NOTHING more, NO child victim, NO child hurt, NO child was in contact all they did was look at images that in many instances were taken by children themselves. Amy Adler, Associate Professor at the New York University School of Law states, “Everything becomes Child Pornography in the eyes of the law, clothed children, coy children, children in settings where children are found, perhaps children themselves become pornographic”. IN FACT In REALITY The majority of pedophiles get more sexual gratification from a Sears Catalog than pornography. It is RARE someone records their crime. Numerous legislators and criminal justice officials have in recent years cited defective social science evidence that purports to provide empirically objective support for interrelationships among child pornography consumption, pedophilia, and child molestation; However the empirical evidence cited so often by law enforcement is significantly flawed and or incorrectly interpreted. Therefore the resources that target and severely punish child pornography consumers is misplaced.

    http://www.truthmovement.us/2015/04/the-child-pornography-crusade-and-its.html

  • “‘Predictably there was an immediate backlash, with people accusing him of sympathizing with dangerous pedophiles””
    The backlash was more about the “statement” from his friend about the CP and Grisham’s culpability of “passing it off as fact” to the American public. Offenders LIE they ALL LIE and Grisham was guilty for assuming what his sex offender “friend” told him and then slathering it like the propaganda peanut butter it is to those who respected him.

  • Jennifer

    Ok look here: If someone downloaded images of a 16-year-old they thought was 20, obviously they shouldn’t get a life sentence. But children who are clearly children? I don’t care what happens to them; seriously don’t give a damn, because what they do supports this evil travesty. “a false idea of childhood innocence” Yes, they’re not that innocent, let’s keep from overdoing things. And save the revolting description of fetishizing to those who actually ARE obsessed in unhealthy ways with youth.

    • Cotton

      Your argument fails on this account–you state “I don’t care what happens to them,” then you caution against “overdoing things”. This is a massive hole in your reasoning. Besides, one of the real problems with current approaches to child pornography is a wide variance from one state to the next about what it actually is. It would be great if your statement about “children being clearly children” were the legal standard. But it is not. In some jurisdictions (Virginia, for example), filming a topless seventeen-year-old girl who is dancing to music IS the production of child pornography. By that standard, the movie Blue Lagoon is little more than a pornographic film depicting children. If you watched the film, you watched “children who are clearly children”, right?