By Ann Sanner
COLUMBUS — An Ohio bill that increases penalties for human trafficking and creates a fund to help victims cleared one of its final legislative hurdles on Tuesday.
The measure would make human trafficking a first-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. That’s tougher than the second-degree felony that the Legislature established in late 2010 to tackle what’s described as modern-day slavery.
Victims of human trafficking are often forced into the sex trade or pushed to work against their will in fields, restaurants or other sweatshop-type jobs.
The bill would create a path for victims to have their records expunged if they have prostitution or solicitation charges as a result of being forced into the sex trade. The proposed change in the law would help victims piece their lives together and re-enter society, said state Sen. Larry Obhof, a Montville Township Republican.
“I think we can all agree that being a victim of human trafficking is itself bad enough,” Obhof said. “We don’t need a justice system that stigmatizes victims even further.”
The legislation also would allow victims to sue their traffickers for damages.
“They are never going to get their innocence back, but someone is going to pay,” said state Rep. Teresa Fedor, a Toledo Democrat who sponsored the bill and has led the call for stronger laws in Ohio.
The state Senate unanimously passed the measure on Tuesday, and the Ohio House unanimously passed it last month. Representatives are expected to agree to the Senate’s changes today, which would then send the bill to the governor for his signature.
Gov. John Kasich has made bolstering the state’s human trafficking law a priority. The measure’s passage was a rare showing of bipartisanship as the General Assembly looked to wrap up its work this week before breaking for the summer.
The Republican governor has pledged to crack down on the crime. In March, Kasich signed an executive order that directed state agencies to work together to identify the most effective ways to rescue victims, get them help, and prosecute those who abduct and exploit them.
Thirteen is the most common age in Ohio for children to become victims of human trafficking, according to state figures. An estimated 1,078 underage Ohioans are trafficked each year, and another 3,016 children are considered at-risk.
“This is like domestic abuse on steroids,” Fedor said in a recent interview.
Fedor said she worked with senators to make sure the bill also targets the demand for human trafficking. For instance, people who seek prostitutes or knowingly solicit sex from trafficked victims could face tougher felony charges if the victims are younger than age 18.
The measure contains an emergency clause, making it effective as soon as it is signed into law, rather than after the typical three-month waiting period.