So we took a few minutes just now to check out some headlines with Google’s “Fast Flip” news browser (which, by the way, is super-cool). And this headline totally caught our eye: “Some Sex Crimes Get a Pass – Why?”
That’s a damn good question! What do you mean, some sex crimes don’t get prosecuted — that’s appalling! Either the crime is something society doesn’t think worth punishing, or prosecutors aren’t doing their job! So we checked it out.
What we found instead was a totally inane article on the Huffington Post, leading off with the following lines:
Sometimes the simplest sounding questions spark the most profound discussion.
What’s our purpose on earth?
Why is the sky blue?
Why do we have a statute of limitations on sex crimes?
I mean, really, why give the criminal any break at all? By placing a limit on how far back the prosecutor can go to punish a sex predator aren’t we telling countless victims that the justice system doesn’t apply to them?
The author, one Diane Dimond (titled “Modern day journalist,” whatever that means), asked around and got some decent answers. Connecticut defense attorney Mickey Sherman explained that statutes of limitations protect people’s right to be notified in a timely manner that they could face criminal charges. Prosecutors from New Mexico and California explained that legislatures decide how long a statute of limitations ought to be, reflecting what the people think is fair.
So what did Ms. Dimond conclude?
I came away thinking the real answer as to why we allow this is because that’s the way it has always been done.
Fortunately for the rest of us, she and victim advocate Wendy Murphy have a solution:
Someone … needs to confront the head of the judiciary committee in every state legislature where the time limits are short and ask only one question: “Why do you want a child rapist to EVER stop looking over his shoulder, wondering if the cops have finally caught up with him?”
There is no Statute of Limitations for murder or treason and I would submit sexual assault is just as life-damaging and heinous a crime. Let’s demand we abolish this foolish statute.
Hmmm. How about we don’t.
First of all, if you’re concerned about a child rapist, the clock won’t even start ticking on that statute of limitations until the kid turns 18. That, plus the 7- 10- or 15-year period most states have, would probably be plenty of time for someone to bring it up.
Second, nobody in their right mind disputes that rape can be a horrible thing. But to equate it to murder or treason (which in the U.S. means trying to get Americans killed in wartime) shows a remarkable lack of judgment and perception. Nothing is as remotely “life-damaging” as forcibly taking the life of another.
See, there’s a concept that some things really are worse than other things. Not everything is equally bad. Shoplifting is not a good thing, either. Do you want to have to “look over your shoulder” for the rest of your life because you stole a pack of Fruit Stripe twenty years ago? Of course not.
No, at some point you’re going to want to be able to just get on with your life. At some point, society is going to recognize that you need to move on without worrying about whether you could face criminal penalties — which typically involve the loss of liberty and property.
Also, if society really wanted to punish you for your offense, and if the victim really wanted to go after you for it, then it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. If nobody has bothered to bring it up for ten years, should you really be forced to worry about someone springing that gum theft on you ten more years from now? Of course not.
We as a society recognize that this would simply be unjust. And that’s why we have statutes of limitations. Not because “that’s the way it’s always been,” but because that’s what we happen to think is fair.
Now the statute of limitations for stealing a pack of gum is going to be pretty short. It’s not the crime of the century, so if anyone wants to prosecute you for it they’re going to have to do it within a year or two.
As crimes get more and more severe, their limitations periods get longer. The absolute worst crimes — taking another’s life, and warring against one’s own society — get no limitations period.
Rape is pretty damn bad, though. So most states give it a pretty long limitations period — 7, 10 or 15 years are common.
And guess what: Some states actually don’t have any limitations period for the worst rapes. Alabama, California, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, and Virginia all permit the worst rapes to be prosecuted at any time. That’s 19 states that already do just what Ms. Dimond wants.
Does that mean the other states are backwards or wrongheaded? Of course not. One of the beauties of American government is that people in different parts of the country get to write their own laws, to reflect their own local mores. Something that’s a crime in New Mexico might be perfectly legal and encouraged in Ohio. The people, through their elected legislatures, get to write the laws that suit them best. And as times change, they can modify their laws as they see fit.
So the fact that New York has a 5-year statute of limitations means that’s how long New Yorkers are willing to give for an adult victim to come forward, the police to figure out whodunit, and charges to be filed. If New Yorkers thought it would be fair to all concerned to extend that period, they could do so. Or they might decide that Utah has it right, and reduce the time to 4 years.
By all means, if you think a law should be changed, write your legislators and tell them so. But try to give them better reasons than what the HuffPo posted there.