How Josh Duggar and Dennis Hastert could change the laws on sex crimes

How Josh Duggar and Dennis Hastert could change the laws on sex crimes

Two days after former House speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) indictmentbecame public, a small group of sexual abuse survivors gathered at Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago. The group, made up of members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), was there say thank you to prosecutors for exposing Hastert’s alleged crimes.

It was also there to issue a distinct challenge to Illinois lawmakers.

One year after pushing state legislators to enact changes in the criminal statute of limitations – the time during which a person can be prosecuted for sex crimes involving minors — sex abuse survivors and their advocates, some legal scholars and anti-rape activists are pushing Illinois and other states to go further. Much further.

They want to see Illinois and other states extend, eliminate or — at the very least — temporarily lift the often short time frames during which alleged victims have to report sex crimes and the system has to pursue these cases in criminal and civil court. And some of these same forces are now pushing Congress to use its ready weapon – federal funding – to incentivize states that do so. In late May, just hours before the charges against Hastert became public, retiring Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told a Nevada newspaper that he is seeking co-sponsors for just such a bill.

At first glance, the statue of limitation reform movement can seem like the kind of push for civil and criminal procedure reform with meaning to only a small subset of Americans involved in such cases. To others, it might seem like one of those causes so deep in the legislative weeds that rallying support will be difficult. And the reforms do have their critics.

Civil libertarians worry that extending criminal and civil statues of limitation will lead to wholesale violations of the constitutional rights of the accused. Over time, memories fade, evidence disappears and witnesses and victims die, they say, making mistakes more likely. And large institutions such as the Catholic church have lobbied against the reforms in states around the country because of the damage that long-term criminal and civil culpability can do to reputations and church coffers.

But advocates of statute of limitations reform – a movement that has picked up considerable steam over the last decade – say that even as the nation’s understanding of sex crimes and their effects on victims has progressed, those arguments have helped both the legal system and culture to remain woefully offender-friendly and, in some ways, retrograde. Still, each time a name is added to the list of once well-regarded, seemingly wholesome and in some cases self-appointed arbiters of sexual morality — the other big recent examples, of course, being Bill Cosby and Josh Duggar — the details of state and federal laws that limit or prevent potential punishment also get pushed into the spotlight, Marci Hamilton, a law professor and statute of limitation reform movement expert at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law told me.


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