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Should Illinois Remove Time Limit On Prosecuting Sex Crimes?

Dennis Hastert
U.S. House of Representatives

Some Illinois politicians are making a push to eliminate time limits on when people can be prosecuted for certain sex crimes. The move was prompted by the case of former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Brian Mackey spoke to one of the backers of eliminating the so-called statute of limitations, and brings us some background on why we have such limits in the first place.

Hastert ostensibly pleaded guilty to violating federal banking laws. But the reason he was trying to secretly shuffle money around was to keep quiet things that happened decades ago, back when he was a high school wrestling coach.

When it came time for sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Durkin made clear that Hastert’s past transgressions weighed more heavily than the banking crime.

NEWS REPORT MONTAGE: "Calling him a 'serial child molester,’ a judge sentences Dennis Hastert, once one of the most powerful politicians in America, to 15 months in prison." ... “In court, the 74 year old Hastert admitted he ‘mistreated’ some of his wrestlers. Judge Durkin, unmoved, interrupted the former speaker (and) demanded he answer if he ‘abused’ five known victims, later labeling Hastert a quote ‘serial child molester,’ in what was a 45-minute lecture." ... “And this case may lead to a change in child sex crime laws here in Illinois."

The change that news report was referring to would be the elimination of time limits — known as statutes of limitations — on certain sex crimes.

Among the politicians calling for this is state Sen. Scott Bennett. He’s a Democrat from Champaign, and he’s leading a Senate committee that evaluating statutes of limitations.

I called Bennett recently, and asked what he was trying to do.

BENNETT: “Well Senate Bill 3402 is a bill that I've been working on with the Illinois attorney general, Lisa Madigan. and what that bill would do is it would remove the statutes of limitation for criminal sexual abuse, as well as sex crimes against children, allowing prosecutors to bring these cases forward at any time."

Bennett says the push is not only inspired by Hastert’s case, but also the allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby and other notable people. He says there are a lot of reasons why a victim might not feel comfortable coming forward.

BENNETT: “This is not new to me — I was a prosecutor before I did this job. But it's certainly new I think to a lot of the public, when they see these concrete examples and go, 'Oh, I can understand why, if it was a congressman, if it was a powerful teacher or a celebrity, or even a parent or someone important in a community, why a victim might feel like they've got a lot of reasons to keep quiet about what happened to them."

Under current Illinois law, there's already no statute of limitations on sex crimes — if there's physical evidence. But if there's not, there's a 20-year clock. And for child victims, that clock doesn't start running until the individual turns 18.

BENNETT: "So if it's a small child, they have time to process it as an adult. But again, there are many different limitations, and that's what we saw even under current Illinois law, with what we had with the Dennis Hastert situation, where even with an admission of what he did, they had to go after him for a financial crime, not the actual crimes that he committed, because of statute of limitations issues. So those are the types of things we're trying to simplify and clarify, and let people stand trial for the crimes they actually commit, regardless of when the victim feels they can come and talk about what's happened to them."

Bennett's argument has been persuasive among his colleagues in the General Assembly — so far, 33 other state senators have signed on as co-sponsors to his legislation, more than enough to pass the bill. But there are reasons for statutes of limitations. To find out more about that, I called Andrew Leipold, director of the criminal law program at the University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign.

Leipold says such time limits are a longstanding feature of the legal system.

LEIPOLD: "Statutes of limitation are designed to do two things: One, they give some comfort about the accuracy of future prosecution. We all know that memories fade, that evidence disappears, that people move away, witnesses disappear. And so the idea of commencing a prosecution too long after the crime was committed, runs a risk that we will get an inaccurate result. People just don't remember where they were on Tuesday in 1981. The second reason for a statute of limitations, and the one that I'm guessing annoys most people about the Hastert situation, is it's the idea that people are entitled to 'repose.' People are entitled to move on with their life, and now be subject to a prosecution for something that happened five, 10, 15, 20 years ago."

Leipold says the idea behind repose is that, let's say someone smoked marijuana in college. Should they still be subject to prosecution for that youthful indiscretion 20 years later? Of course, there are other, more serious crimes for which society has said there shall be no repose.

LEIPOLD: “The one that most people know about is murder. Murder typically has no statute of limitations. Treason has no state of limitations, typically. And then people — legislators — add to that from time to time, so that usually the most serious crimes either get extended statutes of limitations or no statute of limitations at all. That’s very much focused on the repose idea — that you’re not entitled to repose if I murder someone. But it’s also, occasionally, crimes that are either you can prove in later years — so we’re not as worried about accuracy — or they’re very difficult to detect. And crimes against children are the classic example of that. That we don’t expect children to be able to promptly come forward with a report of criminal activity against them."

And that is the debate the Hastert prosecution and sentencing has prompted in Illinois.

Bennett's legislation has already been approved by his committee, and is awaiting action by the full Senate.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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