More states are extending their statutes of limitations for sex crimes

Many states are increasing their statute of limitations in light of recent sex abuse scandals.

Being the victim of sexual abuse or harassment is a traumatic experience, regardless of whether it occurs as a child or an adult. That trauma can take decades to recover from - if, indeed, the victims of such crimes eventually recover from it at all - and many victims don't talk about their experiences for a very long time, either out of fear or a desire to 'move on'. When those people are finally ready to speak out about their ordeal, however, they often find that the law, through statutes of limitations, has placed an expiration date on when they can bring allegations forward. Thankfully, as Reuters reports, growing awareness of how dramatic sex crimes can be for victims has caused many states to either extend or drop their statute of limitations for sex crime cases.

Why there are statutes of limitations

A statute of limitation essentially says that charges for a crime must be brought forward within a certain time period after the alleged crime took place. Statutes of limitations vary by state and by offense. Their purpose is to ensure that defendants get a fair trial since the longer a case takes to be prosecuted, the more likely it will be for evidence to have deteriorated or for witnesses to have either passed on or have trouble recalling past events.

However, statutes of limitations were largely established before there was widespread understanding of how trauma works. Victims of sexual abuse may take decades to discuss their ordeal even with close friends and loved ones, let alone be willing to go public with their accusations through the civil or criminal courts. That has meant that when many such victims are finally willing to come forward with their stories, they find a justice system that tells them it is too late to hold their abusers accountable.

Removing expiration dates

In light of recent sex abuse scandals, such as those involving the Catholic Church, Harvey Weinstein, and numerous high-profile figures, public awareness of the effect sexual abuse has on victims is increasing. That has led many states to change their statutes of limitations for sex crimes. In fact, as Reuters reports, in 2017 eight states passed laws that extend the statute of limitations for victims of child sex abuse to bring their stories forward and hold their abusers accountable. Furthermore, as PBS Newshour reports, seven states - Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming - have no statute of limitations for felony sex crimes.

However, more work needs to be done. While the statute of limitations is being extended in many states, progress is stalling elsewhere. In four states this year - New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Washington - bills were introduced to extend the statute of limitations for child sex abuse, but they failed to pass.

Pursuing civil cases

It is also important to point out that the statute of limitations tends to be longer for civil cases than criminal ones. While many abuse victims find it difficult to successfully bring criminal charges against their abusers forward, they often have more luck holding their abusers accountable in civil court. Those who have suffered at the hands of abusers should talk to a sex abuse attorney today to learn what options for pursuing justice and holding such abusers accountable they have .