COLUMBUS — For all its gains in the last year in battling modern-day slavery, Ohio law still has a major hole that will keep the state an attractive market for the sexual exploitation of children, a national leader in the human-trafficking fight said today.
Marking Ohio’s 4th annual Human Trafficking Awareness Day, Linda Smith, a former Washington congressman and founder of Shared Hope International, praised the state for passage of its broad law last year increasing penalties for those who prostitute children and buy their services. The Safe Harbor Act also attempts to treat minors arrested for prostitution as victims instead of criminals.
She called House Bill 262 “pretty amazing compared to a lot of states,” but then she touched on a hot-button issue that lawmakers struggled with last year.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), had originally proposed automatically considering someone who buys sex from someone under the age of 18 to be guilty of a second-degree felony, regardless of whether the buyer knew the person was a minor.
But in order to win passage, that provision was watered down in the Senate, creating a two-tier system offering differing penalties and burden of proof, depending on the age of the trafficked person.
Ms. Smith urged Ohio to align its law with federal statute, which defines a minor as anyone under the age of 18.
“The federal government doesn’t care if you’re the trafficker, the buyer, or the facilitator,” she said. “If you’re a part of that ... You are a trafficker. You get 10 or 15 years. The people making money and benefiting off of this should all be given the same penalties.”
She said customers of those sex-trafficking in children, those creating the market, are less likely to get long sentences as the cash-strapped federal government is less willing to take on costly prosecutions.
“If you don’t start hanging buyers like some states are — they’ve raised their penalties, but they’ve made their prosecutions strong enough — you’re going to stay a market,” Ms. Smith said. “Because the money made by traffickers is so high, they will risk high penalties.”
Ms. Smith initially focused on trafficking abroad, starting in Mumbai, India. But the issue eventually came full circle for her to the United States and even to Toledo.
The spotlight first 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. Several speakers at today’s forum pointed to The Blade series that followed as helping to bring the issue home for them.
In addition to increasing penalties, Ohio’s new law gives juvenile court judges the power to divert trafficking victims to treatment, counseling, and other services. It allows victims to sue those who coerced and forced them into selling themselves and allow police to confiscate traffickers' assets to help fund victim services.
Ms. Fedor said a bill addressing the age-of-consent issue is her next priority.
“Ohio was one of the dirty dozen, according to the Polaris Project, one of the 12 worst states in the United States in terms of human-trafficking legislation,” she said. “Last year, Polaris deemed Ohio one of the four most improved states and now considers us a status tier 1 state.”
Republican Gov. John Kasich, who partnered with Ms. Fedor to get the bill passed last year, also talked about the next step. But his office could not specify yet what that step would be.
“This is about this living nightmare that goes on,” Mr. Kasich said. “What’s so amazing about this is it took such a long time to put the hammer down.”
His office announced that the state’s first human-trafficking coordinator, Elizabeth Ranade Janis, will begin work next month spearheading the state’s anti-trafficking efforts.