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Ohio trafficking investigations soared in 2017

COLUMBUS — The number of investigations into suspected modern-day slavery in Ohio spiked last year to the highest level since the state began keeping track.

The annual report released Monday by the state attorney general’s Human Trafficking Commission showed that law enforcement investigated 202 potential cases of human trafficking in 2017, up nearly 50 percent from the year before. The vast majority involved the sex trade.

But the number of arrests dropped off, down to 70, the lowest since 16 were recorded in 2013. And the number of criminal convictions also dropped to 18, the lowest since 17 in 2014.

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Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine believes the state's opioid addiction crisis and human trafficking go hand in hand. "Drugs are used to control," he said.

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“You may have investigations in one year, and then you may have a conviction in another year,” Attorney General Mike DeWine said. “I still believe that human trafficking convictions are being grossly underreported because, frankly, they’re not charging human trafficking. They’re charging something else.”

He said ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the suspect is prosecuted for the specific crime of “trafficking in persons.”

“The most important thing is the victim be saved and not have to exist under those circumstances,” Mr. DeWine said. “The second thing is the person is punished and segregated from society so that they won’t do this again.”

The report noted that 208 people were identified as potential victims of trafficking. Statistically, they were most likely to be female, white, and between the ages of 21 and 29. Thirty-eight, or 18 percent, were minors under the age of 18. Two were 13 or younger.

The report identified 221 suspected traffickers, all but 10 of them believed to be engaged in the sex trade. Ten were involved in forced labor.

Statistically, the traffickers were most likely to be male, black, and between the ages of 21 and 29. Four were minors themselves.

The 257 people identified as customers of the trafficking were overwhelmingly male, white, and between the ages of 41 and 59. Most of them, 183, were suspected of buying sex while 74 were consumers of forced labor.

Law enforcement has been urged in recent years to document the factors that put potential victims at risk. For cases reported in 2017, drugs, alcohol, or other addictions led the way in 100 cases, while being a runaway or homeless came in second with 44 cases.

Mr. DeWine said Ohio’s opioid addiction crisis and human trafficking go hand in hand.

“Drugs are used to control,” he said. “Because opioids are so addictive, it makes it easier for a pimp, makes it easier for a human-trafficker to control a victim. They control a victim’s income, money, but they also control the drugs. The drugs are the most powerful.”

Ohio in recent years has cracked down on trafficking — creating specific crimes to target the offense, increasing penalties for traffickers and their customers, attempting to treat those forced into prostitution more like victims rather than criminals, among other efforts.

Ohio has been at the forefront of research and law enforcement since a federal sting in 2005 in Harrisburg, Pa., put Toledo on the map with cities like Miami and Las Vegas as major recruiting hubs for the sex trade.

Of 177 women and girls caught up in that sting, 77, including a 10-year-old girl, were from the Toledo area.

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

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