Safer harbor


It took Ohio lawmakers seven years to enact a comprehensive state law against the modern slavery of human trafficking. Even then, lawmakers did not do as much as they could or should have when they sent the “safe harbor” measure to Gov. John Kasich to sign last summer. They can fix that.

In 2005, a federal sting in Pennsylvania, and a Blade series on sex trafficking that followed it, highlighted Ohio’s — and especially Toledo’s — role in the tawdry sex trade. The sting broke up a trafficking operation that involved 177 women and girls; 77 of the victims were from the Toledo area, including a 10-year-old girl.

Then-state Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) made ending human trafficking and the child sex trade her special project. Each year, more than 1,000 children are forced into the trade in Ohio. More than 3,000 are at risk of being trafficked.

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Last June, Governor Kasich signed the bill that Ms. Fedor, now a state representative, sponsored. The law was not all that Ms. Fedor or child advocates wanted, but it was a start. Now it’s time to build on the law’s foundation.

The law gets tough on people who are convicted of human trafficking by making a 10-year prison sentence mandatory. It also has changed the way the criminal justice system looks at young people caught up in the sex trade: Instead of throwing them in jail, the law considers them victims, allows them to sue their pimps, and provides services to help them establish new lives.

But state lawmakers can improve the measure. Ms. Fedor’s original bill would have made buying sex with someone under the age of 18 a second-degree felony, whether the john knew the age of the victim or not. The Senate changed the language to make “procuring” someone for prostitution a fourth-degree felony if the person was under 16, and a fifth-degree felony if the victim was 16 or 17.

The trafficking law also made it possible to charge anyone who hires someone who is 16 or 17 for sex with felony importuning. But unlike existing law that involves younger victims, the new law requires a prosecutor to show that a john knew or recklessly disregarded the other person’s age.

Johns should not be let off the hook. Under federal law, everyone under 18 is a minor and need not prove that he or she was forced, coerced, or tricked into the sex trade. Ohio law should parallel the federal statute. The state also should provide tougher penalties for people who traffic in minors.

Other changes should include protecting children from having to testify against their abusers, imposing tougher penalties on johns, making it easier to remove children from the homes of parents who traffic them, and lengthening the statute of limitations from six to 20 years.

Last week, as Ohio observed Human Trafficking Awareness Day, Mr. Kasich said he was amazed “it took such a long time to put the hammer down.” Lawmakers need to keep the pressure on.