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Eliminating the Statutes of Limitations for all Sexual Assault Crimes

Introduction

On March 29, 2017, the Illinois Senate passed Senate Bill 189 unanimously, which seeks to eliminate “the statute of limitations for all felony child abuse and sexual assault crimes.”2 Then, on May 18, 2017 the Illinois House passed the bill unanimously as well.3 In August 2017, Governor Rauner signed the bill into law thus eliminating the “statutes of limitations for all felony criminal sexual assault and sexual abuse crimes against children.”4 The law became effective immediately in August when Governor Rauner signed it. Herein is a review of whether this proposal could lead to an increase of wrongful convictions. Additionally, herein is a review of whether the statutes of limitations for all sexual assaults should be eliminated. The article concludes by urging the legislature to lift the statute of limitations for all sexual assault crimes, regardless of the victim’s age. 

The Statute of Limitations for Child Sex Crimes Under the Previous Law

Under the prior Illinois law, in most cases, a statute of limitations period existed for child sexual abuse crimes. When the victim of a sexual abuse crime was under the age of 18, “prosecution for criminal sexual abuse [was permitted to commence] within one year of the victim attaining the age of 18 years.”5 When a person was charged and prosecuted for juvenile prostitution, exploiting a child, child pornography, and similar offenses, prosecution “[was permitted to commence] within one year of the victim attaining the age of 18 years.”6 In such cases, the time period for prosecution did not “expire sooner than 3 years after the commission of the offense.”7

Previously in Illinois, during the prosecution of an individual for “criminal sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual assault, predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, aggravated criminal sexual abuse, or felony criminal sexual abuse,”8 prosecution “[was permitted to commence] within 20 years after the child victim attains 18 years of age.”9 However, when “corroborating physical evidence is available” or if an individual who suspected child abuse or neglect but failed to report it under the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act, prosecution of such crimes could be commenced at any time.10 So, if the statute of limitations had expired, and later “corroborating physical evidence [became] available,” or if a person who was obligated to report the abuse failed to do so, one could still be prosecuted for sexual acts even though the abuse occurred years earlier.11 

Senate Bill 189 Changes to the Law

Senate Bill 189 removed certain portions of the law and added some new provisions that will aid victims. When the bill took effect in August 2017, the portion of the previous law that stated “prosecution for criminal sexual abuse may be commenced within one year of the victim attaining 18 years” if the victim is under 18 years old was replaced.12 The sentence in the proposal immediately following eliminates the condition that “in no such case shall the time period for prosecution expire sooner than 3 years after the commission of the offense.”13 The bill effectively removed the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse crimes, but it left the statute of limitations in effect for crimes involving child pornography, solicitation of a child, juvenile prostitution, and similar sexual offenses involving children.

The law removed the portion that states “when corroborating physical evidence is available or an individual who is required to report an alleged or suspected commission of any offenses under the Abused and Neglected Child Report Act fails to do so,”14 which will allow an abuser to be prosecuted at any time.15 Additionally, the new law states that “[w]hen the victim is under 18 years of age at the time of the offense, a prosecution for failure of a person who is required to report an alleged or suspected commission of criminal sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual assault, predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, aggravated criminal sexual abuse, or felony criminal sexual abuse under the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act may be commenced within 20 years after the child victim attains 18 years of age.”16 So, the statute of limitations still remains unchanged for those who fail to report criminal sexual assault, but sexual abusers of children are no longer protected by the statute of limitations.

While the Illinois legislature has lifted the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse crimes, when the victim is over the age of 18, the current statute of limitations remains unchanged. Under the current law, “prosecution for criminal sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual assault, or aggravated criminal sexual abuse may be commenced within 10 years of the commission of the offense if the victim reported the offense to law enforcement within 3 years after the commission of the offense.”17 So, although the statute of limitations for victims of child abuse will be lifted if the bill passes, the proposed legislation would not change the statute of limitations if the victim is over the age of 18.

Why Eliminate the Statute of Limitations?

Several public policy concerns propelled the bill through the Senate Criminal Law Committee, where it passed with a 10-0 vote, and through the Senate and House, where it also passed unanimously.18 The Senator Scott Bennett who introduced the bill had worked primarily “on cases of child sexual abuse and assault”19 when he was an assistant state’s attorney. He said “victims [often] hesitate in coming forward,”20 as it is difficult for child abuse victims to come forward where the abusers are in a position of trust. Additionally, usually a child victim is embarrassed or feels threatened by the abuser, again prompting a child to refrain from coming forward.

Sexual abuse and other sexual crimes against children remains a serious problem in this country, and in Illinois. As of late February 2017, there have been 4,978 allegations of sexual abuse of a child in Illinois alone.21 Out of those nearly 5,000 victims, 877 cases are confirmed to have been victims of sexual abuse, while the rest of the cases are allegations.22 However, these numbers only reflect the cases that have been reported by victims and are under investigation.23 It remains unclear how many cases have gone unreported. Child victims of sexual abuse can feel very confused when a perpetrator, who is often in a position of trust, sexually abuses the child.24 While resources exist that have the task of looking for signs of child abuse,25 it can still be difficult without a child coming forward. Additionally, while there is much need for support of child abuse victims, there is often times very little funding for such programs.

The passage of Senate Bill 189 was aided by former U.S. Speaker of the House, John Dennis Hastert, who admitted openly to sexually assaulting students while coaching at Yorkville High School.26 Unfortunately, Hastert could not be prosecuted for his crimes because the statute of limitations had passed. He was prosecuted instead for financial crimes to which he pled guilty.27 Hastert was “sentenced to 15 months in federal prison,” which, to his victims, is just a slap on the wrist.28

Will the Passage of this New Law Lead to Wrongful Convictions?

As Senator Bennett points out, cases of sexual assault are more difficult to prove as time passes. Some may fear that this new law could lead to wrongful convictions.29 However, although wrongful convictions do “occur in our criminal justice system,” and some “of deliberately fabricated crimes are child sexual assault cases,” most child victim claims “are claims brought when the victim remains a child.”30 Even so, this law is unlikely to lead to increased wrongful convictions, as procedural safeguards remain in place to “protect defendant’s rights.”31 During trial, victims are vigorously cross-examined “in an effort to discredit their testimony.”32 If the prosecution lacks physical scientific evidence, the jury will be less likely to convict.33

Wrongful convictions are not likely to increase as a result of this new law. The prosecution will still obviously have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that abuse actually occurred. In addition to scientific evidence, when multiple victims come forward, this might be able to serve as additional evidence that the sexual abuse did in fact happen. As long as multiple victims “come forward with similar testimony against an individual, prosecutors can make a case, and this bill allows for that.”34 As long as procedural safe guards remain intact, an increase in wrongful convictions should not happen.

Eliminate the Statute of Limitations for all Sexual Abuse Crimes

Should not the bill lift the statute of limitations for all victims of sexual abuse, regardless of the age of the victim? Similarly to the difficultly for children to come forward, it is also difficult for adult victims forward about sexual assault.35 The topic is not an easy one to discuss. Many victims of sexual assault have historically been accused of “wanting it” or “asking for it” by the way the victim was dressed, or the neighborhood that the victim was walking in, or by body language.36 Unfortunately, this attitude towards victims of sexual abuse remains intact today,37 lending victims to refrain from reporting. Moreover, the fear that someone’s name may be brought into the spotlight, fear of the abuser, and fear of what society might think, can lead a victim to refrain from reporting a sexual assault at the outset.38

Conclusion

With the procedural safeguards serving to prevent wrongful convictions, the statute of limitations should be lifted for all sexual assault crime. Passing Senate Bill 189 was a step in the right direction, but the statutes of limitations for all sexual assault crime should be eliminated. Sexual assault victims, regardless of their age when the abuse occurred, often times refrain from reporting such abuse for similar reasons.


1. Thank you for Professor Emeritus Jeffrey A. Parness and Professor Matthew Timko for their helpful comments. Any errors are mine. 
2. Eric Bradach, Lawmakers eliminating time-frame protection for child sex offenders, The Columbia Chronicle, http://www.columbiachronicle.com/metro/article_dc4bc788-0b6b-11e7-8a6a-f7ced1387bb1.html (Last Updated Mar. 30, 2017).
3. Lawmakers Vote to Eliminate Statute of Limitations on Child Sex Crimes, CBS Chicago (May 19, 2017).
4. Kristen Thometz, Illinois Eliminates Statutes of Limitations on Child Sex Abuse Crimes, WTTW (Aug. 14, 2017).
5. Lawmakers Vote to Eliminate Statute of Limitations on Child Sex Crimes, CBS Chicago (May 19, 2017).
6. 720 ILCS 5/3-6 (d).
7. Id.
8. 720 ILCS 5/3-6 (2)
9. 720 ILCS 5/3-6 (2)
10. 720 ILCS 5/3-6 (1)(j)
11. Id.
12. SB189
13. SB189
14. SB189.
15. Id.
16. Id.
17. 720 ILCS 5/3-6 (1)(i)
18. Eric Bradach, Lawmakers eliminating time-frame protection for child sex offenders, The Columbia Chronicle (Last Updated Mar. 30, 2017).
19. Id.
20. Id.
21. Illinois Department of Children & Family Services, Child Abuse/Neglect Statistics, Data as of February 28, 2017.
22. Id.
23. See Child Sexual Abuse chapter from “By the Numbers” manual, http://icasa.org/forms.aspx?PageID=463 (last visited Apr. 13, 2017). “Many children who are sexually abused do not tell anyone of the abuse. Often, the crime is never reported to the police. In one survey, 42% of all respondents who were sexually abused told someone of the abuse within a year; 21% told someone at some point after a year had passed, 36% never told anyone. Only 3% reported the crime to police.”
24. See also Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, RAINN https://www.rainn.org/articles/adult-survivors-child-sexual-abuse (last visited Apr. 13, 2017). Many child sexual abuse survivors can feel guilty for not being able to stop the abuse or may blame themselves. Around 93 percent of the victims of child sexual abuse know their abuser. The abuser can be a sibling, relative, coach, instructor, or a parent of another child. Additionally, these abusers can manipulate their victims to keep quiet by making threats or claiming that the activity is normal.
25. For example, the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault provides counseling, intervention, and advocacy for victims of sexual assault. To learn more, visit their website: http://www.icasa.org/home.aspx?PageID=500
26. Eric Bradach, Lawmakers eliminating time-frame protection for child sex offenders, The Columbia Chronicle (Last Updated Mar. 30, 2017).
27. Id.
28. Id.
29. Id.
30. Symone Shinton, Pedophiles don’t retire, why the statute of limitations on sex crimes against children must be abolished, 92 Chi. Kent L. Rev. 317, 346 (2017).
31. Id.
32. Id.
33. Id.
34. Eric Bradach, Lawmakers eliminating time-frame protection for child sex offenders, The Columbia Chronicle (Last Updated Mar. 30, 2017).
35. See Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics, RAINN https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence (last visited Apr. 13, 2017). “94% of women who are raped experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms during the two weeks following the rape. 30% of women report PTSD symptoms 9 months after the rape. 33% of women who are raped contemplate suicide. 13% of women who are raped attempt suicide.” Victims of sexual assault also may suffer from drug abuse, and victims tend to have relationship problems with family, friends, and intimate partners.
36. See Rape Culture, Marshall University Women’s Center https://www.marshall.edu/wcenter/sexual-assault/rape-culture/ (last visited Apr. 13, 2017).
37. Id.
38. Id.

Alexander Yorko is a 2L at NIU College of Law. He hails from Lake Villa, Illinois and studied English at Northern Illinois University before attending law school at NIU College of Law. He enjoys running, biking, and swimming.