Sexual-assault survivors in Washington may soon have a longer window to report and have their cases considered for prosecution, after the House approved a measure to extend the statute of limitations for felony sex offenses Wednesday.
Senate Bill 5649 was approved by the Senate earlier this year and passed the House 94 to 1, despite some lawmakers’ concerns with how it would impact juvenile offenders. It’s now on its way to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.
The bill, which is not retroactive, eliminates the statute of limitations for survivors who were children when the crime was committed and extends it to up to 20 years for those who were adults. It would get rid of a requirement that survivors show they clearly expressed a lack of consent to prove third-degree rape. Both efforts were long fought for by survivors and advocates.
“This is the most important move the legislature has made for victims in the last 20 years, easily,” said Mary Ellen Stone, who has been executive director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center for four decades. “It recognizes that there are many barriers to coming forward and reporting, and that time limits are not in the best interest of justice or the victim.”
If the bill becomes law, Washington will join other states that have recently reformed statute of limitations laws, spurred on by the #MeToo movement. Seven have completely eliminated the statute of limitations for felony sex offenses, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
Complete elimination is what Rep. Dan Griffey, R-Allyn, has pursued in years past. While the bill heading to the governor is a compromise, Griffey said its passage is monumental. He credited survivors including his wife, who have testified before lawmakers year after year, with swaying lawmakers.
Public defenders and some lawmakers have expressed concern over what the changes would mean for juvenile offenders. This will be addressed in a work group organized by Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, which will convene next week.
A legislative analysis found the changes could lead to an undetermined increase in cases taken on by prosecutors and people incarcerated as a result, but predicted the financial impact would be minimal.
Prosecutors say they will still only take on cases that they’re confident can succeed in court. The changes will allow them to decide whether to take on a case by its merits, though, instead of declining cases because they’re too old.
“It’s a little surprising. It’s not that we doubted our abilities, but we’ve been working on this for years,” Stone said. “But if we couldn’t pass it this year, given everything that’s been going on, when could we pass it?”
Seattle Times staff reporter Joseph O’Sullivan contributed to this report.