Millionaire author John Grisham has claimed many of the men who access child sex abuse images should not receive such harsh sentences.
Launching an attack on the American judicial system, the best-selling author said far too many people were being jailed under the present system, in an interview with The Daily Telegraph.
Mr Grisham, 59, said: “We have prisons now filled with guys my age. 60-year-old white men in prison who’ve never harmed anybody, would never touch a child.”
“But they got online one night, started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever and pushed the wrong buttons and went too far and got into child porn or whatever,” he said, going on to describe the case of a “buddy” of his from law school.
According to Mr Grisham, his friend ran into trouble nearly a decade ago when he accessed a child abuse sting operation set-up by the Canadian Mounted police, which advertised images of 16-year-old girls, while intoxicated. The man was later sentenced to three years in prison, according to Mr Grisham.
“There are so many of them now, so many sex offenders – that’s what they’re called – that they put them in the same prison, like they are a bunch of perverts or something,” said the author, whose legal thrillers, such as The Firm and A Time to Kill, have sold over 275 million copies.
Mr Grisham, who trained as a lawyer before turning to writing, said: “They never hurt anybody, ok? They deserve some type of punishment but ten years in prison?”
America has the highest incarnation rate in the world. A 2014 report by the National Research Council claims that the prison population of the US "is by far the largest in the world.”
Just under one-quarter of the world's prisoners are held in American institutions, which currently hold 2.2 million people. This equates to more than 750 per 100,000 of the population - compared to Britain’s 154 per 100,000 population.
Mr Grisham, a staunch Democrat who supported Hilary Clinton in her failed 2008 presidential bid, said: “I have no sympathy with a real paedophile.”
Adding: “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."
The author's comments about sex abuse have provoked a fierece response from child-protection campaigners.
“John Grisham’s statements are entirely irresponsible. With the rise in abusive images of children across the globe, there is a need to strengthen laws and to criminalise those that access abusive images of children wherever and whenever,” said Bharti Patel, the chief executive officer of ECPAT UK, which is part of a global network of campaigners and legal figures fighting child exploitation. “There should be consistent and persistent investigation targeting people accessing abusive images of children. There can be no excuse or leniency in this”
She added: “His statement clearly gives out the wrong signal about the criminality of the acts of accessing and viewing abusive images of children. Viewing abusive images of children is multiple abuse of a child and a violation of the rights of children.”
Jon Brown, expert on tackling sexual abuse at the NSPCC, said: “Mr Grisham is talking about the US criminal justice system but online child abuse is a world-wide problem. When the NSPCC did a study of prosecutions for child abuse imagery in the UK the vast majority were of men who had hundreds of thousands and even millions of images across several hard drives."