J. Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the House from 1999 to 2007, could face up to six months in prison after his upcoming sentencing, scheduled for April 27, according to an April 8 New York Times article — but not for last year’s sexual abuse allegations. Rather, Hastert faces charges of covering up said abuse through paying a victim for his silence from 2010 to 2014 and lying to law enforcement when confronted about the money.

The case has remained relatively quiet since Hastert’s stroke last November, but on Friday, federal prosecutors finally provided the details of Hastert’s abuse of not one but four boys during his time as a teacher and wrestling coach decades ago in Yorkville, Ill., according to the same New York Times article.

Largely, the revelation of Hastert’s sordid past has sparked surprise more than disgust or outrage. “Anyone who knows Denny is shocked and confused by the recent news,” Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL)  commented when the allegations first emerged, as quoted in a May 29, 2015 Los Angeles Times article.

Others, like officials at Hastert’s alma mater Wheaton College, have exalted Hastert’s “distinguished public service record” — as if somehow that cancels out the harm of traumatizing four children. 

According to the same New York Times article, an assistant U.S. Attorney, Steven A. Block, went as far as urging the sentencing judge to “balance the positive nature of defendant’s public service with the need to avoid a public perception that the powerful are treated differently than ordinary citizens when facing sentencing for a serious crime.” Never mind justice for the survivors — the important thing here, of course, is ensuring that the public believes Hastert receives no special treatment, even though that is exactly what Block advocates for here.

The same Los Angeles Times article quotes an unnamed law enforcement official as claiming that, because the abuse occurred so long ago, “it has nothing to do with public corruption or a corruption scandal. Or his time in office.” 

First, this statement disregards concerns that Hastert’s clear moral depravity may have affected his time as a top official in the national government, but let’s put that aside for now in favor of something more concrete: money. Hastert paid a victim large sums of money shortly after his reign as House speaker concluded. 

As such, he presumably earned this money, at least in part, during his political career — because the 3.5 million dollars he reportedly promised the victim certainly did not come from savings of his teacher’s salary. Essentially, in this way, taxpayers helped contribute to the bribe which hushed up a sexual abuse survivor — but sure, it has nothing to do with his time in office.

Apparently, to the media and his peers, Hastert’s later political career matters more than the career that endangered the boys in the first place. This troubling defense of Hastert, a public figure, by other public figures brings to mind concerns of corruption. After all, how can his maximum predicted punishment for abusing four boys be  only six months in prison?

In reality, a miniscule six-month stint in prison is consistent with federal guidelines for illegally structuring bank withdrawals, according to the same New York Times article, and that is the crime to which Hastert plead guilty in October of last year. The lack of sexual abuse charges, too, cannot be explained by any public corruption but rather by a flaw in the justice system. 

Prosecutors cannot charge Hastert with a crime in which there is “no ambiguity” regarding his guilt, according to the same New York Times article, because of the statute of limitations. In Illinois, the statute of limitations for felony sexual assault or abuse of a minor requires that prosecutors must charge the perpetrator within 20 years of the victim turning 18. 

As Hastert allegedly abused the four boys during their time in high school in the 1960s and 1970s, the statute of limitations would have run out around 2000 at the latest, 14 years before Hastert was even caught.

This inability to enact justice is an expected frustration in the justice system, and lawyers treat it as a necessary evil, claiming that the purpose of a statute of limitations is to ensure any evidence or witnesses used to convict are fresh and trustworthy. On the surface, that seems reasonable, but a closer examination of the technicalities of statutes of limitations reveals their arbitrary nature. No set time window after which evidence supposedly goes bad exists. 

As such, it varies from state to state and crime to crime. For example, according to a March 5, 2012 explanation of Illinois sex crimes by Illinois lawyer Sami Azhari, the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony in the charge of criminal sexual abuse involves the age difference between the victim and perpetrator, so presumably there are no discrepancies in the type of evidence between the two charges. Despite this, there is still a 10-year disparity in their respective statutes of limitations.

Worse, the clock stops if the perpetrator leaves the state, and it restarts when and if they return, further illustrating the irrelevance of the time involved. The numbers chosen for statutes of limitations have no scientific basis for when evidence is no longer admissible and no psychological basis for when witness testimony is no longer reliable. They are just numbers.

Another argument in support of statutes of limitations involves the Sixth Amendment, specifically the right to a speedy trial, but that argument falls flat. Statutes of limitations refer to the time before one is charged with a crime, so they have nothing to do with the speed of the trial itself.

As such, the good of this legal institution seems unclear, and only the harm remains. Because of an arbitrary legal timeline, the abuser of at least four boys will likely walk free after serving six months or less, and the survivors get no justice.