For victims of sexual assault, finding some measure of justice to perhaps ease the pain of memories that will last a lifetime has not been easy. Until recently, most laws protected the predator by setting unreasonably short time limits within which criminal charges could be brought or civil lawsuits filed.
In New York at least, that situation has changed dramatically this year. Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation extending the statute of limitations for prosecution of second- and-third-degree rape. The new law extends the statute of limitations from five years to 20 years for second-degree rape and from five years to 10 years for third-degree rape.
This is significant because second- and third-degree rape can be charged under New York law when a victim cannot consent to sex either because of age or incapacity. As advocates for victims point out, the majority of rapes fall into this category. Yet, while New York removed the statute of limitations for prosecuting forcible rape more than 10 years ago, victims of other sexual assaults — that were likely committed by someone they know — had little time to overcome the fears of coming forward. Time and societal pressure were on the perpetrators’ side.
“The law said a victim of rape has to bring their claim in five years or they lose their right,” Cuomo said in signing the law. “Five years is a terribly short period of time if you have any appreciation for what the person went through.”
Thanks to the #metoo movement and groups such as Time’s Up, the gender equality initiative formed in response to sexual misconduct allegations in Hollywood, there has been a long overdue raising of societal awareness of the scope of sexual assaults that have gone unreported because of a lack of appreciation of the impact on the victims. “We have denied this for too long,” Cuomo said.
The new law also extends the statute of limitations to 20 years for a criminal sexual act in the second degree and incest in the second degree, and to 10 years for a criminal sexual act in the third degree. It eliminates the statute of limitations for incest in the first degree and increases the time period in which victims can bring a civil suit for these offenses to 20 years.
In August, Cuomo signed legislation extending the statute of limitations for employment sexual harassment claims from one year to three years. And in February, he signed the Child Victims Act, which allows survivors of child sexual assault to pursue criminal felony charges until they turn 28, and file a civil lawsuit before age 55. It also offers a one-year window of opportunity for all others to file claims.
Actress Mira Sorvino, who was one of producer Harvey Weinstein’s early accusers, was one of the witnesses of the bill signing. She summed up the feeling of those applauding the state’s actions this year: “There is a hunger out there for justice and we are here to tell all of you who feel that hunger that we are getting closer to that day when predators will not abuse unabated in an atmosphere of impunity.”