COLUMBUS -- A bill that one lawmaker called a model for human-trafficking legislation for the nation cleared a major hurdle Tuesday and could be sent to the governor's desk as soon as today.
The Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to approve House Bill 262, which attempts to push the reset button on how Ohio deals with minors sold for sex. The bill seeks to shift from prosecuting those minors as prostitutes toward treating them as victims.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), said the bill that emerged from the Senate improved upon what the House unanimously passed last month.
"This is taking care of reducing demand and the ability for us to start arresting the johns who want to hire minors for sex," Ms. Fedor said.
She said she expects no problem when the bill returns to the House today for approval of the Senate changes, one of the last actions the General Assembly is expected to take before recessing for the summer.
As it was originally passed by the House, the bill made it a second-degree felony for anyone to hire a minor for sex, regardless of whether the "john" knew the person's age.
The Senate, however, removed that language and substituted its own language to create a fourth-degree felony to "procure" someone under the age of 16 for prostitution and a lesser fifth-degree felony to do the same with someone between the ages of 16 and 17.
That language, however, was aimed more at those in the trafficking pipeline and not at the person at the end of that pipeline, the customer.
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee recognized the gap it left in the law for minors between the ages of 16 and 17. Before sending the bill to the floor, it amended it again so that anyone who hires someone who is 16 or 17 for sex also can be charged with felony importuning.
But unlike existing importuning law involving younger victims, the bill requires the prosecutor to demonstrate that the "john" knew the other person's age or recklessly disregarded it.
Under Ohio law, the legal age of sexual consent is 16. But Ms. Fedor argued that consent is impossible when the minor is a trafficking victim.
"We have some more work to do in that regard," she said.
She specifically credited Gov. John Kasich for getting the bill to a vote. He has created his own interagency task force to look into how government can better respond to what he has called a "scourge" on Ohio.
The bill would:
Allow adults to seek to have their prostitution convictions expunged if they were victims of trafficking.
Increase penalties for those who force others into the sex trade and for those who hire them, particularly when minors are involved.
Empower juvenile court judges to at least temporarily suspend criminal charges against minors picked up for solicitation while they participate in alternative treatment, counseling, and other services.
Allow trafficking victims to sue those who manipulated them in civil court.
Fuel a fund to pay for victim services by seizing cash, assets, and personal belongings of convicted traffickers.
Require the creation of a poster with a hot line number, 1-888-373-7888, to be posted at truck stops, bus stations, highway rest stops, and other places where it may be seen by victims.
Toledo received national attention in 2005 when a federal sting in Harrisburg, Pa., broke up a sex-trafficking operation involving 177 females. Seventy-seven of them, including a 10-year-old girl, were from the Toledo area.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.