Illinois AG Lisa Madigan urges lawmakers to change sex abuse laws

Image 1 of 2

A state lawmaker and former prosecutor wants to eliminate the statute of limitations on child sex crimes in Illinois, a response to the hush-money case against former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Before being sentenced last week to 15 months in prison for breaking federal banking rules, Hastert admitted sexually abusing teenagers decades ago when he coached high school wrestling in Yorkville, Illinois. Prosecutors said Hastert, 74, paid $3.5 million to silence one accuser who testified in court, but he couldn't be prosecuted for the underlying sex abuse because too much time had passed.

The plan by state Sen. Scott Bennett, a Champaign Democrat, would end the statute of limitations on child sex crimes much like there is no limit on how long prosecutors can pursue charges for some other violent crimes such as murder.

Bennett said that even though his bill isn't retroactive so it wouldn't affect Hastert, it's important to expand the window for victims of sex crimes to pursue legal action. He said it often takes child victims years to feel comfortable reporting their abuse.

"(Time) shouldn't be a complete bar to a victim just because they may not be in a place to discuss their trauma right after it happens," said Bennett, a former prosecutor in McLean and Champaign counties specializing in sexual assault cases involving children.

In 2013, Illinois removed the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits concerning child sex crimes. The next year, state lawmakers waived the statute for those criminal cases in which there is corroborating physical evidence or no report filed at the time of the child sex abuse, but those represent just a small percentage of such allegations.

Jeffrey Dion, deputy executive director at the National Center for Victims of Crime, said the Illinois effort to eliminate restrictions in criminal child sex crimes is not unprecedented. He said about 30 states have no statues of limitations on these crimes and at least seven states have no time restraints on any felonies.

Under current Illinois law, people who were sexually abused as children have until their 38th birthday to open a criminal case.

During Hastert's sentencing, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan — the daughter of state House Speaker Michael Madigan — urged the Legislature to eliminate the statute of limitations on sex crimes.

"When a prosecutor cannot indict an offender for these heinous acts because the statute of limitations has run, it raises serious moral, legal and ethical questions," Madigan said.

In Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania, lawmakers are making efforts to remove time restraints in child sex abuse cases. The full Pennsylvania House approved a plan last month that would change the age limit from 30 to 50 for victims of child abuse crimes to bring civil lawsuits and allow victims of past crimes to sue. The proposal would also remove the statues of limitations on certain future criminal child sex abuse cases, but is not retroactive. The California Senate Appropriations Committee is slated to vote on a proposal that would impact statutes of limitations on certain sex crimes against children and adults.

Attorneys at Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault called proactive efforts to remove the statutes of limitations on severe child sex crimes "good policy" that could even prevent further victimization.

But Kelly Griffith, general counsel at the state organization and former prosecutor, cautioned that it becomes more challenging to prove a crime happened many years after the fact.

The nonprofit group worked with Bennett on another proposal that will improve how child sex abuses are reported and requires better training for law enforcement investigating child sex crimes. The measure would also extend the amount of time a forensic lab keeps a rape kit to five years after a victim turns 18. Under this plan the victim would also receive status updates about rape kit testing.

"What we're trying to do is be sensitive to the victim," Bennett said, adding that his proposals will make the process of investigating and prosecuting a criminal child sex crime less hostile to people who have been abused.

The Senate Criminal Law Committee is expected to hold a hearing sometime this month.