This month, the New York Times reported on activists who are currently calling for the elimination or extension of the statutes of limitations for sexual assault in various states.
Across the country, 34 states, including Pennsylvania, have some sort of statute of limitations, a set time frame during which charges can be filed after a crime is alleged to have occurred.
In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations for sexual assault is 12 years for adults bringing charges against someone. Those who are under the age of 18 when assaulted are allowed additional time to file charges after they turn 18.
But with sexual assault being discussed more openly in society, more states are making it easier for survivors to press charges. Within the last two years, at least six states have either extended or eliminated their statutes of limitations for sexual assault.
It’s time Pennsylvania follows this trend and eliminates any type of statute of limitations for sexual assault.
“If you think about the communal impact, and the familial impact, [the survivors] are going to need time and support,” said Emily Cox, a special projects coordinator at Women Organized Against Rape, a nonprofit rape crisis center in Philadelphia. “And looking at it from the victim’s perspective, I don’t find the statute of limitations to be particularly helpful.”
Of course, statutes of limitations can serve a useful purpose.
“The argument is that people forget after a period of time,” said Marina Angel, a law professor. “Witnesses disappear, and it’s hard to have a fair trial.”
But this fairness for the accused should also be extended to survivors. Giving sexual assault survivors a time limit for reporting a crime may discourage them from coming forward at all.
People take different amounts of time to heal, and statutes of limitations, like the 12-year limit in Pennsylvania, serve as a way of putting an expiration date on the trauma and consequences of rape and assault for survivors.
“If you think about the trauma…maybe they numbed it out, [and] 10 to 11 years later is when they’re looking at [their assault],” Cox said. “They potentially have one year within their own statute of limitations to go through and try and process all of this [and] deal with all these legal details.”
In Pennsylvania, Andrea Constand, a former Temple employee, filed charges against Bill Cosby for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting her in 2004. Her case was filed in December 2015, just weeks before the statute of limitations would have invalidated her motion.
Of the nearly 60 women who have accused Cosby of assault in the past few years, Constand was the only one able to press charges because her alleged assault was the only one that fell within the statute of limitations.
The law shouldn’t prevent a case from moving forward, especially if evidence may still exist after the time expires.
“In the cases involving Cosby, witnesses did not disappear, and the women did not forget,” Angel said. “So those two potential problems do not exist in these cases.”
In cases like this where these roadblocks do not exist, statutes of limitations serve to protect nobody but the accused perpetrator.
Laws should instead be enacted to protect those who are harmed in incidents of assault. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center found that between 2 to 10 percent of rape accusations are proven false. Because false accusations rarely occur, statutes of limitations more often benefit the accused perpetrator.
By allowing unfair rules like the statute of limitations to control how society responds to sexual assault, we are propagating a culture which already doesn’t take these cases seriously enough.
We can’t tell a survivor that what happened to them doesn’t matter after a certain amount of time. It’s time for Pennsylvania to join the group of states that have stood up against this thinking and eliminated statutes of limitations for sexual assault.
Jasmine Fahmy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.