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.


  1. Dylan Jan 28

    I don’t understand how this argument can work; if the prosecutor doesn’t have resources to pursue every case, when no leave it up to her to decide? In practice, there are probably very few cases that old that would be prosecuted anyway.

  2. Adam Rosi-Kessel Jan 28

    …if the prosecutor doesn’t have resources to pursue every case, when no leave it up to her to decide?

    Because I’d rather have this sort of policy judgment made, at least as an initial matter, by an elected legislature on “macro” grounds, rather than letting a 24 year old fresh out of Law School with no “big picture” understanding make the call. To be fair, it is unlikely that a child sex crime case would be handled by such a young prosecutor. The problem is more that law enforcement generally is not in the best position to make these decisions.

  3. Adam Rosi-Kessel Jan 28

    I should provide a clarifying example. The legislature could enact criminal penalties for just about everything we think is bad, and then let the enforcement arm (police, prosecutors, prisons, parol boards, etc.) chose how to enforce it. This is basically the way drug laws work: certain drug crimes, despite potentially serious penalties, are rarely if ever enforced in some jurisdictions–for example, I would be surprised if there were any Federal enforcement of the offense of marijuana possession in New York in the past year, despite the fact that that offense carries, I believe, a one year mandatory sentence. (There may have been such enforcement in connection with other crimes–for example, if a rapist is discovered with marijuana, they’ll probably tack on that charge as well.) In this case, the system perhaps gives the right result, but it would make a lot more sense for the legislature to actually pass laws (and set priorities) it wants enforced, rather than leaving it to the discretion of the enforcers.

  4. Joe Esparza, El Paso, TX Jan 28

    I am 29 years old and was a victim of childhood sexual abuse from ages 8-13. My step-father repeatedly subjected me to oral sex as well as destroying my self-esteem by calling me fat, lazy, stupid, worthless, etc. The man is a monster and I have not spoken directly to him in over 10 years. Though I had the opportunity to press charges when I was 14, I chose not to because he was and still is married to my mother. I have suffered years of nightmares, failed relationships, and lost jobs because of the trauma I live with on a daily basis. I have now decided that this monster must get his due. He has also made passes at cousins of mine and I wonder whether he has molested anyone else. All that having been said, the statute of limitations for pressing charges for childhood sexual abuse in Texas was last year for me (10 years past the victim’s 18th birthday). I can no longer press charges thanks to that arbitrary statute of limitations. I have to live with the fact that this man does not have to register as a sex offender, that he may have offended or might offend again, and that he has never once apologized or been remorseful because he has never been called to task. All this because selfish people like you choose only to focus on the here and now. Thank you for your short-sightedness and lack of concern for victims everywhere. I’m sure that things are very cut and dried in your ivory tower, but the real world doesn’t work that way. Nor should it. Statutes of limitation should be abolished for all serious sex crimes, just as they are for murder. It is people like you with your “just get over it and move on” attitude that allow these crimes to continue. The perpetrators have only to wait a few years before they can breath easily. I have the rest of my life to relive the trauma. So, again, thank you for your “fair and balanced” approach to this topic. Have a nice day.

  5. Joe Mar 26

    A very insightful piece on the statutes of limitation. Thank goodness for them!! I was very recently falsely accused by my stepsister’s daughter of sexual abuse that occurred some forty years ago!! I have no idea what she is talking about as the events she seems to remember never occurred! Keep in mind that this is a person under psychiatric treatment and who was subjected to an endless parade of ‘boyfriends’ brought into her home by her mother. I cannot help but wonder how many other men and women have been falsely accused by someone bent on a vendetta for other reasons?

  6. Mar Apr 13

    Joe, I’m sorry to hear about your horrible past. Have you tried couseling?, because it does work. Talking about it is the best thing you could do for yourself. NO MATTER WHO THE OFFENDER IS, YOU MUST REPORT THE CRIME. Later on in life, in my opinion, it makes the accuser look bad if it waits. I don’t care what an offender tells someone. The right person will believe you and a solution to the problem can be resolved right away. My husband was accused of abusing his daughter one time a few years ago, and with no evidence whatsoever, he is sitting in prison for a crime that was never committed. His daughters mother has had a vendetta towards him for the past 17 years. He didn’t have a relationship with her for 9 years of that. Once the mother found out about him marrying myself, she comes up with some horrible accusation. She only requested that he spend 5 years in prison. If someone abused myself, or when I have children, my kids, I would want them DEAD. And also, Joe, not to be so blunt, but your mother is just as much to blame as he is. Dr. Phil just had on an episode Monday or Tuesday about an sexually abusive relationship between a grandfather and his granddaughter, and that is what Dr. Phil said. She’s to blame too.

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