THE BLOG
12/08/2011 02:03 pm ET | Updated Feb 07, 2012

Should Sex Crimes Ever Go Unpunished?

Ten years ago, when Bobby Davis first came forward as a sex abuse victim, police told him that the statute of limitations had run out. Therefore no charges were filed against Bernie Fine, assistant basketball coach at Syracuse, who was fired November 28 after three different alleged victims came forward.

The case has left many baffled, wondering:

Shouldn't the person still be charged and held responsible no matter how much time has passed?

It was a crime back then, how could it possibly not still be a crime today?

Isn't it unnecessarily unfair, unjust and harsh for the justice system to tell victims that they waited too long to come forward?

Those are all valid questions and concerns. There is no statue of limitations for homicide anywhere in the U.S., but each state has its own laws regarding when other crimes are no longer punishable. In New York, for instance, you have just one year from the day a sex crime is committed or one year from the time a victimized child turns 18 before the statute of limitations runs out. In other states, however, they have much longer.

These laws are designed to protect the accused, but they currently don't take something very important into account. It's this: not all sex offenders are the same. It's a lot more important for society to get some of them off the streets than others.

Let me give you two examples. Let's say a young man in his early 20s has consensual sex with a 16-year-old girl and is accused of statutory rape. Assuming he is not preferentially attracted to teenage girls, this is an example of a once-and-he's-done criminal. He will probably never victimize another young girl again. As he gets older, so will his sexual partners.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, is the predatory pedophile. These are people who do not stop after victimizing one person. They keep going and going until they are caught. They will victimize countless children over years and years. They probably will never be cured of being a pedophile, and they probably won't retire from it, either.

In the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) we learned how to recognize the difference between an offender who will probably never strike again and one who probably won't stop until law enforcement forces him to stop. The following three factors make a sex offender much more likely to strike again and again:

  1. They enjoy the hunt. These are not people who commit crimes by mistake. They hunt for their victims, groom them, and manipulate them. They enjoy it, and their motives will include sexual abuse, power, control, thrill and excitement.
  2. They are sexually deviant. This means they are sexually excited by what society would consider abnormal behavior. An attraction to young boys or girls is one type of sexual deviancy.
  3. They lack a conscience. I spent much of my career studying psychopaths, people who lack a conscience. They are callous and have a stunning lack of empathy for others. When a psychopath sexually abuses children, he does not care about the emotional or physical trauma he's inflicting on his victims or their families. His concerns are only for himself and they center on being able to keep doing what he's doing.

When one or more of these factors are present, it's a recipe for a career of crime. The predator will likely keep abusing one victim after another. Over time his crimes can become more daring, better planned and possibly even sadistic. This is a criminal who will not stop unless he is caught and jailed.

A statute of limitations makes it unnecessarily challenging for law enforcement to catch and prosecute a predatory sex offender. When victims are groomed by the offender and sexually assaulted over time, a bond can often develop. The victim wants the abuse to stop, but he doesn't necessarily want his abuser to go to jail. Because of this bond, it's difficult for the victim to report the abuse to authorities while the abuse is still going on or even after it has stopped and the offender has moved onto other victims. The victim's willingness and ability to report a crime is even more difficult if the alleged abuser is someone important or famous. It's for this reason that many victims do not come forward until years later -- long after a statute of limitations has run out.

What does this mean for current victims? Even if the statute has expired, it is so important to report abuse of any kind. Even if law enforcement's hands are tied on your specific crime, they can often use your information to prosecute the offender for assaulting current victims.

You can't assume that someone else will come forward. Many victims don't, and sex crimes are often underreported. When an offender is eventually caught, he's often charged with only a small portion of what he actually committed. These predatory sex offenders love to hunt, and they will do it until they are old or dead -- unless you help to stop them.

Mary Ellen O'Toole, PhD, is a former FBI profiler and author of Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us.