Thursday, October 16, 2014

a defense of John Grisham

Radley Balko steps in to remind us that John Grisham is not a lunatic who cares nothing for justice even though Grisham himself has apologized for his earlier statements about child pornography sentences.

Grisham's apology:
"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," the author said in a statement. "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."
Balko's defense of Grisham, which is a longer and much more thoughtful piece than my blog 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 hometo 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. [My emphasis.]
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.
Balko's piece is heavy on the links because the information he presents about Grisham is important. Grisham has a history of being on the side of justice. 
The reality is that John Grisham has done far, far more to actually address racial bias in the criminal justice system than the self-righteous pundits mocking him have done or will likely ever do. But because he had the temerity to stick up for a friend — and a middle-aged white male friend at that — the rush is on to disregard all of Grisham’s prior work, exaggerate the indignation, and reduce the man to a caricature....
This dressing down of Grisham by Jessica Goldstein at ThinkProgress pieceis pretty typical. There’s no mention of Grisham’s criminal justice activism. Just a lot of scolding, belittling, and berating. Worse, much of it is factually inaccurate.
Balko goes on to point out several inaccuaracies and then takes issue with the usual arguments about child porn.

I don’t disagree that children depicted in child porn videos continue to experience harm as those videos are distributed. I’m also certain that viewing the ISIS beheadings causes trauma to the families of the victims. Yet I’m not ready to start putting people in prison who, for whatever reason, decided to watch those videos. I’m skeptical of the supply and demand argument, particularly when the suspect hasn’t bought or traded any porn. But even if it’s true that merely viewing child porn provides a market for more child porn, it’s also far from clear that harsh sentencing laws are the answer. We’ve been tossing people in prison for viewing child porn for decades now, yet both the United Nations and the Justice Department say that the online supply of child pornography is only growing. [My emphasis.]
Read all of the Balko piece; I covered only part of it. It will be worth your time. 

If only John Grisham had been better-prepared to argue what his good sense--and his sense of justice--knows to be true: Sentences for child porn offenses are too harsh.

john grisham questions child porn laws

This article and video are teasers for the full interview to be published on the weekend.
The best-selling author and lawyer - who penned novels like The Rainmaker, The Firm and The Pelican Brief - has given an astonishing interview to The Telegraph defending some child sex offenders, saying they have become victims of a legal system that has 'gone crazy'. 
Astonishing interview? Noticing and saying aloud that people go to prison for years for looking at pictures is not astonishing at all. A legal system 'gone crazy' is astonishing. 
The 59-year-old then called for lighter sentences for those caught downloading images and videos of children being sexually abused. 
The Telegraph [...] also noted a major increase in the sentences of people charged with possession of child pornography over the last 10 years. 
Between 2004 and 2010, sentences doubled from 54 months to 95 months.  
That is an astonishing increase. What is the payoff? The images that sent people to prison are still available online. Incarceration has no affect on the supply of child porn images. None. It seems law enforcement and the judicial system have little interest in diminishing the supply.
Grisham was sure to say that he has 'no sympathy for real pedophiles' and believes anyone caught committing such a crime should face harsh penalties.
Odd that a man who earns a hefty living with words, writing suspense thrillers about crime, would fail to understand that pedophilia is not a crime. 

It is heartening to hear others speak out about the harsh sentencing laws.

Update: Radley Balko defends John Grisham.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

child porn voodoo logic

State and federal courts hand down very different sentences for child pornography crimes. While state courts will hand down a sentence of probation, federal courts will send the defendant to prison for years for the very same crime.
Federal laws are tougher than state laws, but federal authorities say their limited resources allow them to go after only the worst of the worst.
My family and many other families waiting for someone to come home from federal prison would dispute that the feds go after only the worst of the worst. A man in possession of four images or twelve images or eight videos simply cannot be the worst of the worst. The feds go after the easy cases and child porn possession cases are easy.

An interesting research project would be to compare recidivism rates of child porn defendants sentenced by the state with those sentenced in federal court. If there is little difference (a safe bet), that should further the cause for reduced sentences.
...many cases end up in state court where sentences are lighter — which some prosecutors say can be appropriate for offenders who mostly need therapy.
 Makes sense. Why spend $25-30,000 to incarcerate someone for a year when lesser measures can have the same effect?
Others say the lack of mandatory sentences creates a system where the punishment does not fit the crime.
 Nope. Without mandatory sentences, the judge can hand down stringent sentences when necessary but mandatory sentences prevent the judge from giving a lesser sentence when appropriate. Mandatory sentencing laws get in the way of proportionate sentencing.

The article ends with a quote from someone who said,
"Child porn is not a victimless crime — and we need sentencing laws that recognize not only the severity of these crimes, but the suffering the victims endured,"
In the comments, Tiglath Philizar talks about "Child Porn Voodoo logic"--the idea that looking at child porn images can hurt the person represented in the image in the same way that sticking pins in a voodoo doll can cause damage to a real person nowhere nearby.
Think logically for just one minute. If front of me I have a voodoo doll I stick that voodoo doll with a pin and the person I curse is injured. Child Porn Voodoo logic; Someone possesses a photo of a child, in the form of 0′s and 1′s in a computer file. When s/he looks at the medium, the individual depicted in the photo, video or both gets victimized and hurt. While I can appreciate that actual creating CP victimizes children, I cannot agree that looking for, viewing, or collecting CP actually victimizes anyone. If you were to apply the same reasoning to any other crime, then looking at a photo of any crime would be re-victimizing someone.
If the argument is correct that the child in a pornographic image is victimized again when someone looks at the image, we should be able to extend that argument to other victims and other situations and yet no one suggests that possession of a photo of someone cruelly beaten with fists should be illegal because looking at the image will victimize that person again. No one seriously suggests we incarcerate those who downloaded the recently hacked naked photos of celebrities. Making the argument for anything other than child porn exposes the silliness of the argument.

Tiglath Philizar has his own example:
If the simple act of viewing an image of someone is harmful perhaps an appropriate punishment would be to simply take a photo of the perpetrator in jail, then set them free, but have some look at the photo that was taken while they were in jail; same logic.
That would be a change in sentencing policy I could get behind. 

The idea that someone looked at or possessed images of child pornography should concern us far less than the very real actions of someone who abuses a child sexually and records the abuse. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

sex and power, a volatile combination

A Texas cop took advantage of people accused of sex offenses, making them pose naked for photos for his personal collection.
[The police officer] allegedly told suspects that a new law required him to photograph them in the nude.  According to one suspect, officer [the police officer] insisted on having a photo of the mans erect penis, which he said was a new requirement for the state’s sex offender registry. ...
According to the complaint, [the police officer] told the man that a new state law required him to take nude photographs of all accused sex offenders, as evidence, and for records in the state’s sex offender registry. 
The sex offender registry gave this cop the power to do what he did. Laws did not explicitly give him that power to abuse people in custody but fear of the public humiliation imposed by the registry made people suspected of sex crimes vulnerable to his perverted demands.
During the investigation it was discovered that he had a large collection of naked photos from accused sex offenders, and that this activity had likely taken place over a long period of time. It is also highly possible that a number of these suspects were innocent or wrongly accused, because in many circumstances these photos were taken after the initial arrests, before any formal court dates had taken place.
Like people in general, some cops are going to have weird ideas about sex and some of them are going to commit crimes because of those ideas. Knowing that society has been encouraged to revile sex offenders gives bad law enforcement officers the freedom to indulge their own desires to humiliate.

Give a badge and a gun to the wrong person and bad things will happen. 

It will be interesting to see if this cop loses his job over these allegations. Too often, a cop accused of brutality will keep his (or her) job.

Monday, September 8, 2014

"shock waves at city hall"

This story, about a city attorney getting caught for possession of child pornography, has been making the rounds. When I saw it on Facebook, it was heralded with, "Shock waves at city hall..."

Really? Shock waves??

We have been watching first-time offender after first-time offender get hauled off to prison for years because of child porn and now you are shocked? If anything, seeing it happen again and again and again--and rarely a repeat offender--should tell you it can happen to anyone.

How can anyone profess to be shocked when someone who looks at child porn as part of his job...looks at child porn? It has happened so frequently that we simply should not be shocked anymore.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

how a congregation should respond to sex offenders among them

Yesterday, I congratulated The Lutheran for publishing Same Table, an article that talked about sex offenders in church. Its loving attitude and efforts to dispel myths about sex offenders were like the smell of bread fresh from the oven. Comforting. Promising something wonderful at the table.

The article linked to some suggested resources for churches trying to decide what to do about registered sex offenders. Heaven help the sex offenders!

Perhaps now that The Lutheran has made it known that...

1. "public perception of the risk of repeat sexual offenses [is] much higher than it is"


2. "offender registries and notification systems have little to no effect on recidivism rates and may, in some cases, increase the risk they will commit future sex crimes"

...the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) can rethink the "help" they offer congregations.

Numerous studies in recent years point to an extremely low likelihood that pedophiles can or will change. Without extensive professional treatment, virtually all child sexual offenders will re-offend. Repentance, prayer and pastoral support can be crucial elements when combined with life-long treatment, but, in themselves, they offer little hope of changing the behavior of perpetrators.
Let's begin with the casual use of that frightful word, pedophiles. Most sex offenders are not pedophiles, not even those who offend against children. Most pedophiles are not sex offenders. Pedophile is a word meant to frighten you.

As for that hopelessly grim statement, virtually all child sexual offenders will re-offend, see #1 above. The recidivism rate of sex offenders is extremely low.

The ELCA document continues:
A convicted sex offender who wishes to be part of a church community, whether one he or she has attended for some time or a new one, should expect to have conditions placed upon his or her participation. This can best be done through the development of a written covenant, signed by the offender and by church officials, preferably by both the pastor and the chairperson of the Church Council (or other administrative body of the church).
The covenant should begin with a clear statement of the role of the church as "sanctuary," with appropriate Biblical reference(s).
There's more but this is the point where I started laughing. The role of the church as sanctuary? Not for sex offenders! Sex offenders should expect to have conditions placed upon his or her participation. Forgiveness? Pfft.

The appropriate Biblical references in this case are meant to warn the sex offender that the need for sanctuary for people who are uncomfortable with former sex offenders trumps the need for sanctuary for the sex offender who wants spiritual nourishment.

Surely there must be some appropriate Biblical references about forgiveness and mercy that could guide a congregation in welcoming a sex offender. Maybe something like this:
Ephesians 4:32 - And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.
Back to the covenant that sex offenders must sign:
As part of your growth and penitence, you shall prepare and deliver written acknowledgments and apologies for the pain caused directly or indirectly by your actions. At the very least, you shall address these statements to your victims, their families, your own family and the members and supporters of this church. (Requests for forgiveness shall not be included). This will become part of an open letter to the congregation, informing them of your presence and of the conditions of your participation.
My, that's quite stern. I am trying to imagine the effect on children in the congregation. I am trying to imagine the effect on the family of the sex offender in the congregation.

Another condition for the covenant:
You may not use restroom facilities in the church buildings.
Welcome to church; stay away from the coffee.

Yesterday, I stood on my well-worn soapbox and was gently pulled down by someone reminding me that other people do have stories that make them fearful -- someone betrayed by a financial advisor, someone whose family suffered a murder, for example. Some fear they could be victims of another crime.

Members of the congregation who have been convicted of non-sexual crimes such as assault or fraud -- possibly leaving someone critically injured or leaving a family in dire financial straits -- those convicts can come to church with no covenant demands. They can even use the restroom.

Crimes and the effects of those crimes fall in a wide range. Some sex offenders perpetrated a violent rape; some touched no one. Some assaults don't do serious injury; some leave the victim in a vegetative state.

After serving their sentences, some criminals are allowed to continue with their lives without public self flagellation; some are seen as needing only a quick stop at the restroom to return to wicked ways.

The reason so much attention is on sex offenders is that there is a list of them. Once there is a list, the fear seems justified. They must be dangerous if the law requires them to register!

How to square this cold, demanding document with the compassionate Same Table article? At first, I assumed the document was very old but no, it was last modified November 2013. Better information was easily available at that time. I hope the ELCA realizes the disconnect between the myth-based covenant and the recent fact-based article and moves to update the document with better information and with more attention to the role of the Church in the world.

When I found Ephesians 4:32, I also ran across this:
John 3:16 - For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
God gave his Son and the ELCA is putting conditions on space at the table?

This helpful document suggests that some in the congregation can partake of the Bread.
Some are allowed only to smell it.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

a church welcomes registered sex offenders

In its July 2014 issue, Lutheran magazine published an excellent article by Ryan P. Cumming about a church that welcomes sex offenders.
After months of preparation and prayer, Redeemer held its first adults-only worship service at 4 p.m. Easter Sunday, welcoming 20 visitors, all registered sex offenders.

Paul (last name withheld upon request) was one of them. He hadn’t been to church for eight years and didn’t expect to go for another eight, when his parole would end. But a friend who attended Redeemer handed him a flier for the adults-only service.

“I didn’t think I’d be able to go back again until I got done with probation,” Paul said. “This church doesn’t judge. They accepted the fact that some of us had gotten into trouble and were learning from our bad decisions. A young man told his story and it struck home with me. … We had communion, which was awesome. I actually felt a sense of peace come over me. This makes me feel much better about life.”
Former offenders in church! A good thing, but why adults-only?
Ministry among registered offenders is particularly difficult. Many offenders can’t be in places where children gather.
Some former offenders are not allowed to attend worship services even with their own families. This article makes only glancing reference to families of sex offenders, profiling an offender who seems not to have one. Offenders do have families -- children, spouses, parents, in-laws, siblings, grandchildren -- families who welcome the offender back into their lives. It seems particularly cruel to withhold the experience of worshipping with family from someone who has paid his debt to society.
In addition, the stigma following [sex offenders] can be turned against congregations that would welcome all—including offenders. A primary concern for Hayden is that Redeemer could “be targeted” for backlash from its community.
Rightfully so, say many. Churches are supposed to be welcoming but also safe places where members can trust one another and where adults and children are protected from harm. In a 2010 survey, Christianity Today found that nearly half of respondents would oppose allowing a registered offender to serve in a ministry in their congregation. For many in the church, the risk of re-offending is too high.
But researchers have found public perception of the risk of repeat sexual offenses to be much higher than it is, especially when the specific characteristics of a crime are taken into account. In a 2010 study for the Justice Department, researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, found that offender registries and notification systems have little to no effect on recidivism rates and may, in some cases, increase the risk they will commit future sex crimes. [My emphasis.]
The registries isolate former offenders at a time when a strong social network is a way for them to stay on a good course. Places of worship have traditionally been a particularly fine way to build that support network. Hard to do when attendance is prohibited by probation and parole officers, and harder when the congregation fears repeat sex offenses that research shows are unlikely.

If more places of worship follow the example set by this church, the rewards will be much greater than the perceived risks.
The transformation hasn’t been limited to former offenders. As plans for the service developed, a woman approached Hayden and said: “I hear you’re having this alternative service. I’m a victim of a sex offender. But I’m going to come, because I feel like I can be healed there, because we’re all going to be at the same table together.”
Kudos to The Lutheran for daring to publish a piece promoting the inclusion of sex offenders in church services.