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Abolish statutes of limitations on all felonies
Abolish statutes of limitations on all felonies
A statute of limitations is a law that prevents the prosecution of a crime once a specified amount of time has passed. For instance, if a rape was committed in 2020 in a jurisdiction that limited prosecutions for rape- by statute- to ten years after the crime (or possibly ten years after charges were first filed against a suspect), no charges could be filed after 2030. Limitations statutes vary by jurisdiction and tend to scale up based on the seriousness of the crime. Recently, accusations of child molestation and sexual assault by religious ministers have led to a number of proposals that law systems with statutes of limitations lift them and allow prosecutions to proceed irrespective of how long ago in the past an alleged crime occurred.
|Points For||Points Against|
|Prosecutors are the appropriate individuals to determine which crimes to prosecute in order to keep the community safest.||Prosecutors should focus on current crimes, not ones that no longer have any relevance to the community.|
|Many types of cases, like child molestation, intrinsically have long periods of time during which evidence arises.||Evidence deteriorates and will either be ineffective or even potentially send innocent people to jail.|
|Removing statutes will boost the indirect deterrent presented by criminal laws.||Statutes of limitations protect against politically motivated and corrupt prosecutions.|
|DNA evidence gathering is advancing and becoming cheaper; using DNA evidence in prosecutions will lead to more just outcomes, even years after the commission of a crime.||Dangling the possibility of prosecution over people for a long time is unfair, and statutes help ensure speedy trials.|
|Revisiting cases from long ago is painful for victims; sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.|
Remember to choose a winning argument!
Prosecutors are the appropriate individuals to determine which crimes to prosecute in order to keep the community safest.
Prosecutors are the appropriate individuals to determine which particular crimes are most damaging to the community, and how resources should be allocated. They have the greatest amount of exposure to criminals (particularly repeat offenders with whom they may be familiar) and the methods that can be used to punish and rehabilitate them.
Limitations statues should be repealed to give prosecutors more flexibility, in pursuing and investigating crimes. For instance, even if a low-level criminal who committed grand theft auto with a statute of limitations of three years is no longer a real threat, threatening him with prosecution might cause him to give up friends he knows who committed more relevant, more recent crimes. Trading a plea bargain for those dangerous and actively criminal associates is good for the community, but cannot be accomplished if we cannot prosecute the car thief in the first place.Improve this
Prosecutors frequently have pecuniary motivations like bonuses for convictions that influence their decision about which cases to pursue.[i] Statutes which are put in place by a legislature reflect a consensus about the proper allocation of resources to protect the community.
The people in a particular district may prefer that money be redirected towards educational programmes aimed at reducing the number of young people who may become involved in drugs and violent crime; towards foot patrols by police officers in troubled neighbourhoods, or longer more elaborate penal responses to certain crimes. That is a legitimate choice and we should honour these democratic preferences.
[i] Bibas, Stephanos. “Rewarding Prosecutors for Performance.”
Many types of cases, like child molestation, intrinsically have long periods of time during which evidence arises.
Many types of cases intrinsically have long periods of time during which evidence arises. For instance, in cases of child molestation, there is often an evidence may be suppressed due to long term institutional failings, protracted familial abuse or continued proximity between an offender and an isolated, intimidated victim[i]. Children may be reluctant to speak out against individuals who are held in high regard in their communities, or they feel embarrassed about what has happened to them. There also exists the possibility of repressed memory[ii], where the brains of the individuals who were abused actually cause them to forget such a traumatic event occurred until years later, often well into adulthood.
[i] Powers, Martine. “Proposed law would eliminate statute of limitations on sex abuse cases.”
[ii] Hopper, Jim. “Recovered memories of sexual abuse.”
While the plight of these victims is lamentable, when we are balancing the individual and public interest in retribution on the part of the victims against defendants’ right to a fair trial and the protection of the innocent, we defer to protecting the innocent.
If something happened thirty years ago, there is no real way to know exactly what happened, and “repressed memory” sounds like a fairly dubious thing to base a conviction on when the events in question are likely hazy. At best these trials will likely simply tie up court resources for inconclusive results and acquittals based on insufficient evidence, and at worst they are at risk of putting innocent people in prison. Better ten guilty men go free than a single innocent person be punished unjustly.Improve this
Removing statutes will boost the indirect deterrent presented by criminal laws.
Removing statutes of limitations will provide a significant boost to the indirect deterrence power of laws, since a significant number criminals take into account factors like the likelihood that they will be apprehended, likelihood that they will be convicted, and sentencing when deciding whether they will commit crimes. Although not all criminals act with this degree of rationality, those that do are often responsible for the most damaging and pernicious forms of crime- organised violence, drug dealing and institutional abuse- They are rational actors.[i] Currently, if criminals evade prosecution until the statute of limitations is up, they will get away with the crime.
They also therefore have perverse incentives to suppress evidence or pay off witnesses until the limitation period expires.
[i] Beckery, Gary. “Rational Criminals and Profit-Maximizing Police.”
Criminals are not nearly as rational as proposition would suggest. Criminals (particularly violent ones) are often poorly educated and have little understanding of the justice system or the methods by which they will be brought to justice.[i]
The fact that there are statutes of limitations is probably irrelevant to the vast majority of criminals. However, they still deserve the protection and due process afforded to them by the existence of these laws.
[i] South-Western College Economics Resource Center. “Policy debate: is the death penalty an effective crime deterrent?”
DNA evidence gathering is advancing and becoming cheaper; using DNA evidence in prosecutions will lead to more just outcomes, even years after the commission of a crime.
DNA evidence is advancing steadily and will aid in prosecution. The justice system will be able to consistently produce fairer and more robust outcomes if the state enables conviction of criminals years after their crimes.[i]
Furthermore, even if it is not advancing significantly in terms of the methods we use at any given point, it is likely that the current methods we have will be streamlined and eventually go down in cost. This means poorer jurisdictions can afford to utilize DNA analysis for the purposes of collecting evidence. Right now, there are thousands of rape kits sitting in evidence lockups in the police stations of less affluent districts. If we can access more of those, we can significantly benefit justice.
[i] US Justice Department. “Using DNA to solve crimes.”
There is a good likelihood that DNA evidence will be the only evidence remaining after a long period of time; witness or alibi memories may have faded or become confused, for instance. But DNA is not always reliable, and jurors are subject to manipulation and over-confidence on the reliability of DNA evidence. If told that the probability that a suspect would match a blood specimen if he were not the source is 0.1%, many more jurors believe the suspect is guilty than if told one in one thousand people in a particular city who are not the source would also match the blood drops.[i] As we can see, DNA evidence can be arbitrary and susceptible to manipulative presentation which ultimately undermines justice. Statutes ensure that DNA will not be the only evidence advanced in a trial.
[i] Koehler, Jonathan. “The Psychology of Numbers In the Courtroom: How to Make DNA-Match Statistics Seem Impressive or Insufficient.”
Prosecutors should focus on current crimes, not ones that no longer have any relevance to the community.
The efforts of prosecutors and investigators should be focused on current crimes. Unsolved serious that are relatively recent; just a few years or months old represent a clear threat to the community. Murderers may still be at large; the proceeds of property crimes may not have been sold on. The information that professional criminals possess about the operations and efficacy of organised crime networks becomes obsolete (often dangerously so) very quickly. If we divert an excess of police and prosecutorial resources into investigating “cold cases” and historical offences, we will diminish our capacity to fight the most current problems. The more we spend on them, the less we can spend on education (both general and vocation teaching and drug-use prevention), regular police patrols, and other methods to prevent crime from happening in the first place.
If people have not committed another crime in the duration of the statute of limitations, it is likely that they have reformed, or that they have found a method of subsistence and a means of earning money that does not require them to commit crimes. We should not be overeager to put people in our already over-crowded and arguably criminogenic prison systems.[i]
People can change over time, and we should not be held accountable forever for mistakes we made during times of desperation, or as naive children or teenagers.
[i] Pirius, Rebecca. “Criminal Statutes of Limitations.”
If statutes of limitations were abolished, it does not mean that police and prosecutors would be required to pursue and every single unsolved crime in their records. Citizens should trust the executive to make sensible decisions about which crimes should most quickly be brought to justice in order to ensure the safety of the community. Ensuring that communities remain safe and that established liberal rights are protected from criminal exploitation is, after all, the primary purpose of democratic states. There are a number of techniques that allow prosecutors to resolve crimes that fall outside of the scope of their original statute of limitations, and a wide range of benefits that result from such action.
Useful applications of an indefinite right to prosecute crimes include threatening to try mafia underlings for historical offences, in order to obtain information on their bosses; apprehending a suspected repeat offender where there is insufficient evidence to bring a conviction on a more recent crime; and situations in small jurisdictions where there are cold cases for serious crimes and no serious crimes committed lately. Abolishing statutes gives prosecutors another tool that can be used to protect society against crime.
If people have truly reformed, they can be sentenced leniently or the prosecutor can choose not to bring the case. However very few people are able to break away from a personal history defined by criminal behaviour and an economic reliance on criminal activity third party support. Over inclusive limitations on criminal prosecutions impair the utility and efficiency of the criminal justice system by preventing the authorities from intervening in the lives of individuals who might be helped to overcome drug addictions or personality disorders in a penal context. Similarly, statutes of limitations may inadvertently protect and conceal domestic abusers who are neither reformed nor repentant, but who have stopped offending because they no longer have easy access to vulnerable individuals.Improve this
Evidence deteriorates and will either be ineffective or even potentially send innocent people to jail.
Deteriorating evidence means that, as time passes, it becomes much more difficult for those charged with historical crimes be tried successfully or fairly. Trials that rely on out dated evidence may result in wrongful convictions.[i]
Material evidence degrades and yields less certainty about the individuals who left traces of sperm, blood, or other DNA. Quite contrary to the depiction of forensic science in popular media, using biological material to link suspects to a crime is a delicate process that is subject to extensive judicial control and, in most jurisdictions, a dense system of rules and checks. All biological matter decays, and the passage of time means that it will be much less likely that expensive DNA analysis techniques will yield results that will be admissible in a criminal trial.
The memories of witnesses fade over time and they are more likely to inadvertently make a mistake and potentially incriminate someone who had no relation to, or no culpable role in, a long-ago crime.[ii] Every time we recollect an event we reconstruct it and often change some details. After ten years, all that psychological distortion adds up, and worst of all, eyewitness testimony is trusted by many jurors who do not understand that our memories are not static, permanent, and faithful records of events.[iii]
Insofar as justice ought to value the protection of the innocent, statutes of limitations help protect against unlawful and unjust imprisonment and therefore should be maintained.
[i] Kyodo News. “Families of murder victims launch group to abolish statute of limitations.”
[ii] Loftus, Elizabeth and Ketcham, Katherine. “Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory On Trial.”
[iii] Niman, John. “Memory Enhancing Technology and Witness Testimony.”
Rising standards of DNA analysis and capability make it much more likely that well preserved and accurate evidence gathering techniques will be freely available to prosecutors both at the present and as we move into the future (where there will likely be further DNA advances).[i]
More importantly, deterioration of evidence and fading of witness memory has nothing to do with statutes of limitations. The cited problems exist within the timeframes specified in many statutes of limitations anyways. If the argument is that eyewitness testimony is never truly reliable, then that is a debate about the permissibility of witness evidence in court, not a debate about statutes of limitations per se.
In the status quo, if a hypothetical violent crime were subject to a statute of limitations of 10 years, all of the problems with evidence and memory degradation identified above would exist 7, 8 or 9 years and 364 days after the crime was committed, yet the suspect could still be subject to prosecution. We account for this in the status quo by requiring rigorous standards of evidence in courtrooms. Witnesses that appear uncertain or who mix up their stories are not going to be highly esteemed by judges or juries.
[i] DNA Initiative. “DNA Technology Advancements.”
Statutes of limitations protect against politically motivated and corrupt prosecutions.
Statutes protect against politically motivated prosecutions. If they didn’t exist, prosecutors or the politicians who back them (since prosecutors are frequently elected and are therefore compelled to campaign for a popular vote) would target politicians and dredge up insignificant crimes that were committed long ago. This could ruin political careers for no reason. Even President Barack Obama of the United States has admitted to illicit use of cocaine, which carries a significant criminal penalty.[i]
[i] Romano, Lois. “Effect of Obama’s Candor Remains to Be Seen.”
Politicians should not have a get-out-of-jail free card just by virtue of being politicians. Felonies are felonies for a reason – because we think committing them constitutes a grave offense against the community. That is the determination of the democratically elected legislature.
The cocaine trade, for example, devastates many urban areas and is highly correlated with upticks in violent assaults and robberies. Participating in a market for cocaine- buying cocaine for recreational purposes- incentivises increased production of the drug, dealing of the drug and greater quantities and expansion of the activities of criminal gangs. Placed in this context, it becomes difficult to ignore Barak Obama’s admission that he has used cocaine; it becomes hard to regard his actions as lacking culpability.
Prosecutorial discretion exists, and judges can throw out cases if they are obviously just digging for dirt or blackmail. Cases that are not well grounded will not even pass the grand jury stage.Improve this
Dangling the possibility of prosecution over people for a long time is unfair, and statutes help ensure speedy trials.
In many jurisdictions, as in the United States, individuals have a right to a speedy and fair trial. Statutes increase efficiency of the court system; otherwise prosecutors would drag their feet, and prolong cases (particularly those where they have an incentive to let a particular alibi-providing witness disappear or become less credible before they stage the trial, for instance).Improve this
Police investigating old and historic crimes will still only pursue viable leads. The right to a speedy trial- in the context of the USA- means that citizens may demand that court proceedings are efficiently conducted and that periods of custody on remand are as brief as possible. The right has nothing to do with how soon charges are brought against an individual after a crime has been committed.
Police and prosecutors want to do their jobs, and if they are at all interested in justice, they will obviously try to get cases tried and closed as quickly as possible. If what the opposition says about decaying evidence is true, then it is even more likely that prosecutors will take this into account and not drag their feet so as to avoid that problem. Prosecutors are not nearly as corrupt as opposition suggests; they are fundamentally concerned with issues of justice.Improve this
Revisiting cases from long ago is painful for victims; sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.
Revisiting cold cases is painful for the victims as well as their families and friends. It is likely to involve new investigations, interviews and covering old ground which will stir up memories that the victim may well prefer to remain submerged. We think it is better to simply leave some crimes to history after a set period of time; the polity’s need for retribution is diminished after some time.Improve this
Many people carry the pain that their attackers inflicted on them for their entire lives, particularly in cases of rape. There are significant long-term clinical impacts: nightmares, phobias, use of narcotics or alcohol to cope, and more.[i] In many cases where their attacker was never apprehended, these fears are linked to that fact. Convicting individuals is essential for the emotional recovery of victims.
[i] Burgess, Ann. “Rape Trauma Syndrome.”
Becker, Gary. “Rational Criminals and Profit-Maximizing Police.” http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Becker_Chapter/Becker_Chapter.html
Bibas, Stephanos. “Rewarding Prosecutors for Performance.” http://moritzlaw.osu.edu/osjcl/Articles/Volume6_2/Bibas-FinalPDF.pdf
Burgess, Ann. “Rape Trauma Syndrome.” American Journal of Psychiatry, 1974. http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/data/Journals/AJP/2934/981.pdf
DNA Initiative. “DNA Technology Advancements.” http://www.dna.gov/solving-crimes/cold-cases/longandshort/technologyadva...
Hopper, Jim. “Recovered Memories of Sexual abuse.” http://www.jimhopper.com/memory/
Koehler, Jonathan. “The Psychology of Numbers In the Courtroom: How to Make DNA-Match Statistics Seem Impressive or Insufficient.” http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~usclrev/pdf/074502.pdf
Kyodo News. “Families of murder victims launch group to abolish statute of limitations.” 9/10/2010 http://english.kyodonews.jp/podcast/story02/40234.html
Loftus, Elizabeth and Ketcham, Katherine. “Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory On Trial.” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dna/photos/eye/text_06.html
Niman, John. “Memory Enhancing Technology and Witness Testimony.” 7/15/2011 http://hplusmagazine.com/2011/07/15/memory-enhancing-technology-and-witn...
Pirius, Rebecca. “Criminal Statutes of Limitations.” http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/statlmt.pdf
Powers, Martine. “Proposed law would eliminate statute of limitations on sex abuse cases.” Boston.com, 9/27/2011. http://www.boston.com/Boston/metrodesk/2011/09/proposed-law-would-eliminate-statute-limitations-sex-abuse-cases/mD3dNgnuJSXAOhRNXB8a6O/index.html
Romano, Lois. “Effect of Obama’s Candor Remains to Be Seen.” Washington Post, 1/3/2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/02/AR200701...
South-Western College Economics Resource Center. “Policy debate: is the death penalty an effective crime deterrent?” http://www.swcollege.com/bef/policy_debates/death_penalty.html
US Justice Department. “Using DNA to solve crimes.” http://www.justice.gov/ag/dnapolicybook_solve_crimes.htm
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