Criminal Statutes of Limitation

Unlimited justice: Once a criminal, always a criminal

Statute of Limitations
unlimited justice © Willee Cole – All rights reserved.

The statute of limitations limits the amount of time during which a crime can be punished.

Time was, if someone committed an offense (as most everyone has in some manner), it had to be punished within a reasonable amount of time. In the US, this limitation on prosecutors is often called the statute of limitations.

Before the recent fascination with putting victims on display, the statute of limitations was a traditional part of American justice. Why? There are several very good reasons. The first reason is its deterrent effect. Time passes, and if one knows that one is no longer under threat of prosecution, one has acquired the strongest possible incentive to keep things that way. Good behavior is thus rewarded.

In the 1980s, leaders of the American justice industry decided that this concept was limiting the growth of their business. Weakening the statute of limitations allowed lawyers to mine decades-old grievances. Eager prosecutors lusted after “cold cases.” Neo-feminists and other devoted victims, instead of moving on with their lives could now dwell endlessly on acting out their stories for an audience and embrace the idea of getting revenge for ancient wrongs. Private greed took precedence over public good. Lawyers of every sort were enthusiastic over the prospect of removing these statuatory limits on their business.

All of these groups filled the media with their enthusiasm. Reporters, not having been to law school, were largely uncritical of the change. After all, the prospect of more crime to report was good for their business as well. Legislators, being lawyers themselves, thought it sounded great, too. All over the US (and with other countries following the US lead) statute of limitations laws were weakened or thrown out altogether.

Thousands who conformed to social values and thought they had left old offenses long behind them found they were criminals again. Their years of clean living were suddenly of little value. Increasingly, self denial for the common good became the fool’s choice.

Some law industry champions had promoted the idea of pursuing the old cases with the cry of “Once a criminal, always a criminal.” For many, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.