Why Do Statutes Of Limitations Exist In The First Place? | WBEZ
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Morning Shift

Why Do Statutes Of Limitations Exist In The First Place?

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert was sentenced to over a year in prison for bank fraud, but he can’t be prosecuted for abusing four teen boys decades ago. That’s because the statute of limitations for those charges lapsed long ago.

Morning Shift dove into the subject of limitations, particularly around crimes involving sexual abuse of children.

Why do we have statutes of limitations?

The point of statutes of limitations is to give both sides of a case a fair chance at gathering evidence to present their case.

“There’s a concern, I think among law enforcement and prosecutors that you wait for a very long time and these crimes are very hard to prove,” said Illinois’ Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is mounting an effort to abolish the statute of limitations for certain crimes against children. 

As of January 2014, Illinois law gives victims of sexual abuse as a child until their 18th birthday, plus 20 years to report the crime, a time period that basically comes out of legislative wrangling.

“The goal is to balance the interests of the defendant against the interests of the alleged victims, and the 20 years represents some attempt to strike that balance appropriately,” explained Hugh Mundy, Assistant Professor at the John Marshall Law School.

Mundy added that when a crime is prosecuted many years after it happened, the conviction may offer the victim a sense of justice, but fails to achieve other goals of prosecution, like the protection of the public and rehabilitation of the perpetrator.

What problems do statutes of limitations cause? 

There’s often a delay between when the crime is committed and when it’s reported, particularly around sex crimes against children, said Meg O’Rourke of the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center. 

The perpetrator is generally someone the child knows and trusts and that “makes it really hard for the child to come forward,” she said.

Children tend to deal with the stress by dissociating or pushing memories away. That means without proper therapy and support, victims may not deal with the issues until they become adults. 

Also, when it’s futile to report the crime, it’s harder for victims to come to a sense of closure and justice, O’Rourke said. 

Could Illinois get rid of the statute of limitations?

Illinois’ Attorney General Lisa Madigan wants to eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal sexual abuse and sexual assault crimes against children. 

There was opposition to the 2014 extension of the statute, particularly around whether it’s possible to defend a case so many years after the alleged crime.

But Madigan says since the perpetrators of these sorts of crimes tend to be people close to the victim in some way-- a coach, teacher or family member-- there’s a bigger group that was around consistently during that time -- the team, the class or the rest of the family. That’s often an easy group of potential witnesses to interview, she argued. 

And, she added, the Hastert case has certainly increased the political will to make this legal change happen.

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