Roll back time limits for prosecuting sex crimes in Washington

KRT illustration
KRT illustration MCT

More help for sexual assault victims needs to rank among the Legislature’s priorities when the 2019 session gets underway next month. As it stands, not enough is being done in Olympia — particularly for survivors whose trauma has kept them silent for years or decades.

Twice in the last two years, the state House has approved a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations for felony sex offenses, allowing legal action at any point after a crime is committed. And twice in the last two years, the state Senate has stifled it.

At a minimum, legislators should adopt a compromise that emerged in the Senate last session. It would chip away at the arbitrary expiration date for sex crimes by allowing lifetime prosecution for two of the most heinous offenses: child rape and child molestation.

Sexual violence impacts hundreds of thousands of people a year in the U.S. The Department of Justice reports that somewhere in America, a woman is raped every two minutes. According to the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, in 2017, more than 13,000 victims in our state sought help after reporting sexual assault.

And then there are the thousands who suffer in silence because they’re too afraid to report.

Under Washington law today, there’s a 10-year deadline for child victims to press charges after being sexually abused, as long as a police report is filed within one year of the incident; if a report isn’t filed that quickly, the window for pressing charges shrinks to three years from the abuse date. The rules are slightly different for victims who were younger than 14 when assaulted.

Confused yet? More than a dozen states keep things simple; they have no time limits for children younger than 15 or 16 years old.

Illinois and California were the most recent states to roll back their limits. Illinois officials were motivated in part by the 2016 case of former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who confessed to sexually abusing middle school wrestlers he coached in the 1970s. But he couldn’t be prosecuted for those crimes because the statute of limitations had elapsed.

Why shouldn’t Washington join these states?

Last February, nine women testified before the Senate Law and Justice Committee advocating for House Bill 1155. One woman said she was in 6th grade when she was abused.

The chair of the committee, Democratic Sen. Jamie Pedersen, held firm after hearing their stories. “Human beings deserve to go on with their lives,” said Pedersen, a Seattle attorney. “We have statutes of limitation in every area of the law with the exception of murder. I think that special status is appropriate in cases of murder.”

The human beings Pedersen referred to are the presumed perpetrators. Alas, many victims, scarred by sexual assault, can’t go on with their lives so easily. As one woman testified: “Most people think that a rape ends after the physical assault does. I’m here today because that is not the case.”

Another survivor said it took eight years to work up the courage to share her story and hold her abuser accountable.

The House passed the bill with a 90-to-8 vote in February, but it died in the Senate without a vote. Some senators expressed concerns that it was overly punitive to juvenile offenders — a flaw that seems eminently fixable.

We appreciate Pedersen’s defense of statutes of limitation; they’re needed in most cases to protect people from being prosecuted based on physical evidence or eyewitness testimony that degrades over the years.

But does anyone really think that if HB1155 is adopted prosecutors will suddenly be willing to waste their time on weak sex assault cases? The truth is that our legal system increasingly revolves around forensic evidence that’s resilient and reliable, such as DNA samples.

(On that note, legislators can further help rape victims by adding more funds to process Washington’s backlog of as many as 10,000 untested rape kits. )

The #metoo movement may be a relatively new phenomenon, but assisting victims of sexual violence in the South Sound is not. Since 1972, the Sexual Assault Center for Pierce County – then known as Pierce County Rape Relief -- has supported survivors of assault and harassment. The initial offerings were humble. No funds meant a small group of women handled crisis calls from their own homes.

Public awareness and community resources have grown exponentially over the last 46 years. But even today, many victims are reluctant to come forward. As Tasha Smith, current executive director of the local assault center, said: “When people do decide to report and speak up, if it’s not a positive experience, it won’t happen again.”

A compassionate ear is comforting. Education is important, too. But what crime victims in Washington need right now is recognition by lawmakers that sexual trauma can’t be anticipated, regulated or labeled like a “best by” date on a gallon of milk.

Healing takes time. Courage does, too. And justice shouldn’t be held hostage by an arbitrary number of calendar pages.