The Madness of Eliminating Pennsylvania’s Statute of Limitations
Mar. 15, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — The push in Pennsylvania to eliminate the state’s statute of limitations for sex crimes seems to be reaching a fever pitch:
An emotional scene at the Capitol Monday as legislators and victims rallied to change Pennsylvania law in regards to child sex crimes. Attorney General Kathleen Kane and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale urged the state general assembly to pass house bills 655 and 951.
“This is where we protect our children,” Kane said. “This is how we make sure, that when they are the victims of sexual abuse as children, that we do not allow the perpetrators to get away. We do not all them to slip through the cracks.”
655 would eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal and civil cases of child sex abuse.
It’s impossible to even hint at the subject of sex crimes these days without someone pleading for us to think about the children, and Kathleen Kane isn’t wasting any time getting right to it. Of course, for obvious reasons, her commentary is a little thin on just how the change in the law would protect anyone.
When people demand harsher punishment for offenses, there’s at least an argument that the new laws might deter offenders. That’s also true with new criminal laws and measures designed to alter how the system deals with defendants. A statute of limitations, on the other hand, will only block charges for conduct that has already occurred. It’s hard to believe that Kane really thinks that future sex offenders who won’t be deterred by serious punishments and almost universal condemnation for such offenses in modern society will somehow rethink offending if they just knew that authorities and victims would no longer be barred from filing suit long after the abuse in the event disclosure is delayed for some reason.
Catching perpetrators, the second part of Kane’s quote, at least makes some sense. Allowing prosecutors to go ahead with charges at any time will undoubtedly result in charges that otherwise could not have been filed. And like with any cause similar this, there are always the perfect examples, people who suffered just the sort of wrong the change in the law would eliminate:
“Put away the political bulls*** and make this happen,” child sex abuse victim Brenda Dick said.
“I am owed justice. I am owed identification, and he is owed capture,” she said.
House Bill 951 would allow for a two year window for victims to file civil suits against their abusers. It would not matter when the crime happened.
This would help victims who have waited years to talk about their abuse.
She said she was abused for years by a family member. When she went to police with case, the statute of limitations had expired for her abuser.
For someone who doesn’t deal with the system, it probably seems natural to think that people are entitled justice, which may entail the identification and capture of someone who has broken the law. It’s a little more complex when applied to the real world, however.
It isn’t like Pennsylvania prosecutors have an especially short window of time to bring charges. In fact, it appears they have twelve years right now. If the crimes weren’t so awful and the victims so often children, it would be pretty easy to say that if someone hasn’t come forward in over a decade, they’ve waived their ability to do so. But the sympathy for these victims is undeniable, and there are countless tragic stories just like Brenda Dick’s. The article even provides others in addition to some interesting numbers:
“I sat on that secret for 20 years,” victim Jim Money said. He would later go on to serve in law enforcement and work to put child predators behind bars.
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape CEO, Delilah Rumburg said it can take people years to come forward to talk about the abuse. Yeshiva University law professor Marci Hamilton said the average age for people to come forward is in their 40s.
Dick and Money were just a couple of the victims who were in attendance for the rally at the Capitol. Representative Mark Rozzi from Berk County is a victim himself. He is looking for the bills to pass and make sure the child sex predators are put away and not allowed for this to continue to happen.
If the idea of protecting the children is based on the idea that offenders who have not been charged due to the statute of limitations are out there re-offending, the fact that Pennsylvania already has a twelve-year statutory period becomes even more important. Many offenders may have gotten past the age range where people are likely to offend after that long, and others may be old enough by then that they’re physically incapable of reoffending. If the victims are typically in their 40s, how old are the offenders?
The call for eliminating the statute of limitations seems to provide no statistics whatsoever showing that recidivism actually is a significant problem with presently un-chargeable offenders, unfortunately, and if we’re demanding that we expose a whole new group of people to suit, a necessary consequence of the proposed change if it’s going to have any real world impact at all, it would probably be a good idea to have some sort of data showing just what sort of difference it’s likely to make. Anecdotes are nice, but they’re not alone sufficient.
In the end, the main reason why that matters is the very reason why statutes of limitation exist in the first place. It’s hard enough to defend a sex crime allegation regarding something that supposedly happened yesterday, but it’s a totally different level of difficulty fighting an allegation regarding something that happened over twelve years ago. Combine harsh sentencing laws, all of the little things in the system that add up to give the prosecution a tremendous advantage, and the coercive nature of plea bargaining, and the cases that would be allowed should the statute of limitations go away will have an especially high potential for wrongful convictions. Moreover, for the same reason that is true, it will be all but impossible to determine if the convictions are wrongful or not. After all, if authorities haven’t charged it in the twelve years since it happened, they aren’t exactly going to have a DNA sample lying around for an eventual exoneration.
There are a lot of serious issues to consider when it comes to a massive change like this, yet some of its proponents treat it like it’s as black and white as can be:
“How could you vote against victims to support pedophiles and perpetrators,” he said. “I’ve been getting a lot of great response from our legislators, and you know what it’s time.”
He says he is facing challenges from House Judiciary Chairman Ron Marsico.
It’s that sort of rhetoric that leads to bad law. Whatever Ron Marisco’s reason is for challenging the law, whether it’s concern about wrongful convictions, the constitutionality of change in general, or something else entirely, it is most certainly not a product of some sort of hatred for victims or a love for pedophiles and perpetrators. By insinuating that, any supporter of the law is only really exhibiting either an inability to think seriously and deeply about the problem or assuming the public is too stupid to do the same. Neither is indicative of the sort of person whose position should be taken seriously when it comes to a major change to the criminal justice system.
As is always the case with changes to the criminal justice system, there are competing interests when it comes to a statute of limitations. On one side, there’s an emotional tug at the heartstrings and some obvious injustices. On the other are some maligned individuals and lofty talk about rights. Seeing that play out in real time in Pennsylvania, it’s no wonder why statutes of limitations have been slowly disappearing across this country.