CHICAGO — Prosecutors in Illinois will no longer face a time limit on bringing charges for major sex offenses, regardless of the alleged victim's age, under a measure Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law.
The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, removes the statute of limitations on criminal sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse. Previously, prosecutors had 10 years to bring charges if an offense was reported to law enforcement within three years after it occurred.
The change comes as victims are coming forward with allegations of sexual assault and abuse dating back years or even decades, prompted in many cases by the #MeToo movement. The measure was sponsored by Republican state Rep. Keith Wheeler of Oswego and Democratic Sen. Linda Holmes of Aurora and passed unanimously in both chambers of the General Assembly this spring.
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Illinois eliminated the statute of limitations on major sex offenses against anyone under 18 in 2017 after it came to light that former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert had abused several boys while working as a wrestling coach at Yorkville High School in the 1960s and '70s.
Wheeler said the new legislation was inspired by a constituent whose daughter was allegedly assaulted by two men and who worried that the statute of limitations would expire before charges could be brought because of problems with evidence collection.
The new law will allow alleged victims "to have their day in court, whenever that day comes," Wheeler said.
Advocates praised the measure as an important tool for making sure sexual assault victims are able to seek justice.
"Sometimes folks aren't in the position to be able to come forward with their experience of sexual violence for lots of different reasons," said Carrie Ward, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, "sometimes because of the trauma they've experienced, sometimes because they aren't aware that what happened to them constitutes sexual violence."
The new law will eliminate "an arbitrary time frame that limits when a victim can come forward."
Defense attorneys and civil liberties advocates say eliminating the statute of limitations could result in defendants facing decades-old allegations based on scant physical evidence and testimony from witnesses whose memories have faded.
"These are incredibly high-profile and highly emotional crimes," said Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which opposed the legislation.
The nature of sexual assault and abuse cases can put community pressure on prosecutors to bring charges even in cases where evidence and recollections may have degraded to the point that it hinders a defendant's ability to get a fair trial, Yohnka said.
Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli said doing away with the time restrictions on bringing charges for sex offenses in particular is a concern because those convicted are required to continue registering as sex offenders even after serving their sentences.
"It's that scarlet letter that you wear forever," she said.