In Defense of the Statute of Limitations

There’s a big push in Massachusetts to eliminate the 15 year statute of limitations on child sexual abuse (that runs from the child’s sixteenth birthday)—for example, this Boston Globe article and editorial. Eliminating a criminal statute of limitations is generally a popular cause—after all, the only people negatively impacted would be criminals, and they don’t form much of a lobbying constituency, right?

These articles rarely provide the full reasoning behind statutes of limitations, however. If they address the issue at all, they cite the difficulty of getting a fair trial many years after the events at issue occurred, as in the Globe editorial.

There is a more compelling reason, I think, to preserve the statute of limitations: scarce resources. As with my position on the death penalty, I believe this issue should ultimately be decided pragmatically based on real experience. Prosecutors are terribly overworked. When I represented some indigent criminal defendants, the prosecutors were uniformly younger than me and had no idea what their cases were about until about 30 seconds before they were called to argue (especially in bail hearings). It was all they could do to not drop their two-foot-high stack of files (each representing a criminal case) on their way in and out of the courtroom.

Every case requires resources. Police resources to investigate; prosecutorial and judicial resources to try; and ultimately prison resources if the defendant is convicted. While I understand the need to address past injustices, it seems to me far more important to address current injustices. For every trial relating to sex abuse that may have occurred 25 years ago, there are certainly as many abusers commiting crimes today. If the sex abuser from 25 years ago is still dangerous, he has likely committed more recent crimes for which he could be convicted.

With current funding levels, it is absolutely impossible to pursue every crime committed. Even if we quadrupled funding for the criminal justice system, we are still going to be unable to do a good job catching and convicted all the bad guys. There are at least 250 recent unsolved murders in Boston currently. Necessarily, a choice to pursue sex crimes from 20 years ago is a choice not to pursue something else.

All policy decisions involve trade-offs. Just about everyone is in favor of reducing or eliminating crime and child sex crimes in particular. We can agree on that, but it doesn’t answer the key question of how you do it. Despite the injustice in letting people get away with crimes committed many years ago, it’s a worse injustice to have inadequate resources to deal with crimes committed today.