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Momentum is growing to ease or eliminate statutes of limitation on sexual offenses. Photo by Getty Images.

Why do state laws put an expiration date on sex crimes?

On April 27, 2016, former U.S. house speaker Dennis Hastert was convicted of breaking banking law, but crimes to which he confessed in court — sexually abusing multiple high school boys in Illinois while he served as their wrestling coach nearly four decades ago — would never be prosecuted. Their statutes of limitations had expired.

A year later, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan declared the state had removed the criminal statute of limitation for sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault and aggravated sexual abuse against children. She credited Illinois’ passage of that legislation with the “powerful and courageous testimony of survivors,” many of them speaking publicly for the first time after years of silence, anger and shame.

“Tragically, there are millions of people whose childhoods are tarnished by sexual assault and sexual abuse,” Madigan said in an email to the NewsHour. “For decades they struggle to come to terms with the terrible impacts these crimes have on their lives – including the troubling fact that very few of the perpetrators are held accountable.”

In recent weeks, high-profile and long-buried stories of sexual assault and harassment have cropped up across the country. Since Oct. 5, when the New York Times published its investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against Hollywood film producer and executive Harvey Weinstein, dozens of women and men have come forward with their own stories about sexual misconduct by other powerful men, from Roy Moore, Alabama’s Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, to Charlie Rose, a long-time broadcast news host for PBS and CBS News.

But after they share their stories, what legal standing do victims of sexual harassment and assault have to pursue those accusations in court? That depends in large part on the statutes of limitations that apply in their state.

Nationwide, one out of three women said they have been sexually harassed or abused at work, according to a recent poll from the PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist Poll. But according to 2016 federal data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which monitors reports of unwelcome sexual advances at the workplace, 6,914 incidents of sexual harassment were filed that year. Many more cases go unreported.

Statutes of limitations are laws designed to protect a person from being prosecuted for a crime after physical evidence has deteriorated, or become less reliable, over time. These time limits vary from crime to crime, and between states.

That’s a big problem for victims of sexual violence who may need years or even decades to fully process trauma and understand what happened to them, said Rebecca O’Connor, who directs public policy for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, also known as RAINN, which tracks sexual offense statutes of limitation by state.

“There’s greater understanding among lawmakers that we’re not keeping pace with these individuals,” she said. “Someone’s brain is impacted by trauma, and it’s going to take them some time.”

Nationwide, seven states have completely dismantled statutes of limitations for felony sex crimes, according to Rainn. More than half of states make exceptions for statutes of limitation if DNA evidence surfaces, but a massive backlog of rape kits illustrates how the promise of justice through forensics has its limits. And Wyoming, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland have no statute of limitations for felony sex crimes, according to RAINN’s database.

Adult victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault may also delay sharing their stories for fear of retribution, said Jeff Dion, deputy executive director for the National Center for Victims of Crime. Other reasons include: “The person who did it was in a position of power and control. ‘I was threatened.’ ‘I thought I was the only one,'” he said.

In recent months, some states, considering the kinds of issues outlined by O’Connor and other advocates, have rolled back some statutes of limitation. On Oct. 1, shortly before news of Harvey Weinstein swept the nation, Montana extended its sexual abuse statute from 10 years after a victim’s 18th birthday to 20 years. On Nov. 1, Oklahoma eliminated its statute of limitation on child pornography charges, as well as for cases where a minor was raped, forcibly sodomized or the victim of “lewd and indecent acts.” (These kinds of changes only apply to those who come forward after the laws take effect.)

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Stogner v. California that states cannot retroactively remove criminal statutes of limitations to make it easier to prosecute child sex abuse cases.

“Do these features of the law, taken together, produce the kind of retroactivity that the Constitution forbids? We conclude that they do,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion.

Among the states that have rolled back their statutes, the changes are incremental and form a patchwork quilt of policymaking stretched across 50 states, said Marci Hamilton, who directs Child USA, a think tank that tracks child sex abuse laws nationwide, and serves as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Scandals that embroiled the Catholic Church for nearly two decades inspired much debate over removing statutes of limitations that apply to child sex abuse, she said, adding that those arguments are increasingly being applied to cases of adult rape.

States are “behind the curve” when rolling back statutes of limitations for adults who were targeted for sexual abuse, compared to efforts to make justice more accessible for childhood survivors of abuse, Hamilton said, “but there’s no question there’s been some piggybacking.”

Some states started more sweeping rollbacks on statutes of limitations for incidents of sexual violence long before the latest series of incidents received national attention.

California Senator Connie Leyva, a Democrat from Chino, said women’s law and victims’ rights advocates approached her office in 2015 and asked for a law to remove the criminal statute of limitations from rape cases. In California, victims had to report crimes and seek charges within 10 years. Leyva said she hadn’t known victims faced that “arbitrary time limit” and she “found that shocking.”

At the same time, scandal enveloped comedian Bill Cosby as women said he had drugged and assaulted them, with claims dating back more than 50 years. Some of those same women came and testified before the legislature in support of Leyva’s bill, she said, adding: “Timing is everything in life.”

In August 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union opposed the bill, saying it could increase the odds of an innocent person going to prison. Natasha Minsker, who directs ACLU of California Center for Advocacy and Policy, told the Los Angeles Times, “The statute of limitations is there for a reason.”

Sandra Park advocates for women’s rights for the ACLU national office and said statutes of limitations in criminal cases ensure defendants receive fair trials. She doesn’t think extending statutes of limitations for sexual crimes should be a priority because that “won’t address the issue” for most survivors seeking justice. Far more often, system bias stands in the way, Park said, when police officers and detectives dismiss survivor testimonies and lose or mishandle evidence. Rather than focusing on statutes of limitations, Park said policymakers instead should make sure law enforcement is trained to handle sexual assault cases appropriately.

“If a survivor comes out years later, the bias will still be there,” she said.

Despite the ACLU’s objections, the California legislature gave it unanimous approval, and in September 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Justice for Victims Act into law.

Policymakers are beginning to leverage a greater understanding of forensic evidence and technology, the impact of these crimes on victims and the fact that “we’re not keeping pace with these individuals,” O’Connor said.

“We’ve hit a point where people aren’t going to look the other way,” she said. “The onus is on us to seize upon the moment.”

With each rollback, she said survivors of sexual abuse have more time to heal before fighting to seek justice. Back in Illinois, Scott Cross has struggled since the 1980s with anger, pain and memories of sexual abuse he endured when Dennis Hastert coached him. In August, Cross said Hastert “will never be held accountable” for the suffering he put Cross and his classmates through. But the state’s decision to roll back statutes of limitation on sexual abuse is an important step, Cross said in a statement.

“I am thankful that Illinois law will now allow survivors of these horrific crimes to come forward in their own time, and get justice – no matter how overdue.”