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Human trafficking bill amended

Despite changes, Fedor says her plan offers 'safe harbor'

COLUMBUS -- A wholesale rewrite of a proposed law cracking down on modern-day slavery in Ohio bears little resemblance to what Rep. Teresa Fedor first proposed, but the Toledo Democrat said Tuesday it's still a "safe harbor" bill.

Struggling where to draw the line when it comes to prosecuting minors as prostitutes, an Ohio House committee sidestepped that issue altogether with a massive amendment to the bill. Instead, judges could hold criminal charges temporarily at bay while directing human trafficking victims into protective services and getting them counseling, medical care, drug and alcohol treatment, and other help they need.

If the minors successfully complete the program, the criminal charge would go away.

The bill aggressively goes after adult customers who hire minors for sex even if they don't know they're minors, elevating the crime to a felony.

Ms. Fedor's House Bill 262 would have flatly prohibited prosecutors from criminally charging someone under 18 with prostitution, requiring them to instead be treated as victims. She reluctantly had to let that go.

"I think [the revised bill] is a fair balance of where we need to start," she said. "The first bill is the ideal bill. That's what everyone would like because it makes sense that you shouldn't incarcerate a victim."

Shared Hope International's Protected Innocence Initiative has given Ohio a grade of "D" in terms of its preparedness to deal with human trafficking. Dr. Jeff Barrows, founder of the state's Gracehaven services for trafficking victims, was asked Tuesday what he thinks Ohio's grade will be if House Bill 262 becomes law.

"Maybe it'll be up a little bit, maybe to a C-minus," he said.

Ms. Fedor chimed in, "I agree."

When a legislative lawyer described the revised bill, he suggested the only real holdover from Ms. Fedor's original language was the requirement that the state develop a poster with information for trafficking victims, including a toll-free number, 1-888-373-7888, for help. The bill requires it to be posted in bus stations, turnpike rest stops, truck stops, and wherever victims would be likely to see it.

In addition to the judicial diversion effort, the bill would allow trafficking victims to sue those who forced them into prostitution.

"It's a great idea," said Franklin County Municipal Judge Paul Herbert, whose county has a program that is a variation on the diversion concept in the bill.

The human-trafficking spotlight fell on Toledo in 2005 when a federal sting in Harrisburg, Pa., broke up a sex-trafficking operation involving 177 females. Seventy-seven of the victims were from the Toledo area, including a 10-year-old girl.

In addition to the legislative tact, an interagency task force created by Gov. John Kasich has until the end of June to make recommendations for how Ohio can aggressively prosecute traffickers while locating, freeing, and providing help to their victims.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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