John Grisham © Billy Hunt John Grisham (Billy Hunt)

It an exclusive interview with the Telegraph to promote his book “Gray Mountain,” out next week, John Grisham took a contrarian stance on people who look at child pornography.

He defended them.

He described viewing child pornography as an accidental crime easily committed by pushing “the wrong buttons.” He said not all consumers of child porn are sex offenders — some are just guys who developed a passing interest in it while drunk. He went on to criticize the punishments meted out in such cases.

“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,” said the author of best-selling legal thrillers.

“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. “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.”

He recounted the story of his “good buddy from law school” who got caught up in a Canadian sting operation as an example of judicial excess: “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.”

Guys like his friend “haven’t hurt anybody” Grisham said, but conceded “they deserve some time of punishment or whatever.”

Grisham distinguished people who look at child porn from “real pedophiles.” “I have no sympathy for real pedophiles,” 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.”

Others argue that viewing child pornography aids and abets a crime that is anything but victimless, when it involves, for example, videos and photos of actual children being raped, exploited and otherwise abused. These are children like Nicole and Amy, the women profiled in Emily Bazelon’s New York Times Magazine story titled “The Price of a Stolen Childhood.” Both were raped and abused by male relatives at age nine, and videos were posted by their rapists online for the enjoyment of other sexual predators.

Still, there is a very real debate about how viewing child porn should be punished. The length of federal sentences for child pornography has increased 500 percent in the past 15 years, according to the advocacy organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Last year, a sentencing commission headed by Patti Saris, chief U.S. District Court judge for Massachusetts, concluded that sentencing guidelines for child pornography offenses were outdated. “Because of changes in the use of Internet-based technologies, the existing penalty structure is in need of revision,”  Saris said in a press release. “Child pornography offenders engage in a variety of behaviors reflecting different degrees of culpability and sexual dangerousness that are not currently accounted for in the guidelines.”

Other experts say there is too much emphasis on punishment and not enough on prevention. “All too often, our attention, resources and shock are focused on what happens after a crime is committed — we need to be asking how we can prevent child sex abuse,” Elizabeth J. Letourneau, a child sexual abuse expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, recently wrote in an op-ed for Time. Letourneau views child sex abuse as a public health issue and has called for destigmatizing the act of asking for help.

She does not, however, downplay the seriousness of sex crimes. “The problem behavior must remain stigmatized, of course,” she writes in Time. But the act of asking for help should be met with encouragement and effective professional interventions.”