Ohio Senate passes human trafficking measure
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Human trafficking was a step closer Wednesday to becoming a felony crime in Ohio, a state long criticized for not doing enough to punish modern day slavery.
The Republican-controlled Senate voted 32-0 to make human trafficking a stand-alone, second-degree felony, punishable by up to eight years in prison. The bill now goes to the Democrat-led House, where it’s likely to be approved. Gov. Ted Strickland also supports the measure.
Sen. Teresa Fedor, a Toledo Democrat who sponsored the bill, said Ohio’s lack of a tough, clear law has left the state open to people looking to enslave others.
“Slavery on American soil has yet to end,” Fedor told her colleagues before they voted. “Every day Ohio’s most vulnerable — children, women, the disenfranchised — are coerced and kidnapped with the intention of sexual and labor exploitation.”
About 1,000 American-born children are forced into the sex trade in Ohio every year and about 800 immigrants are sexually exploited and pushed into sweatshop-type jobs, according to a February report on human trafficking in the state.
The bill won bipartisan support in the Senate after a last-minute scramble in which Republican Sen. Bill Seitz sought to slip in changes to Ohio’s criminal sentencing laws. Seitz failed to get the necessary support to include his measure in the bill.
His proposal, which would save the state about $14 million in incarceration costs, would impose the same sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses, expand inmates’ ability to reduce their sentences through good behavior, increase use of halfway houses and GPS devices, as well as numerous other changes.
Senate GOP leaders said they expect the sentencing measure to be taken up early in the next session, which begins in January.
Ohio is among a handful of states without a stand-alone human trafficking law, which means a person caught for enslaving others would not be charged for human trafficking. Instead, prosecutors can attach a human trafficking specification to related crimes to increase an offender’s penalty. But Fedor’s office said prosecutors don’t use the specification because it’s complicated.
The Polaris Project, based in Washington, D.C., has listed Ohio among its “dirty dozen” states that the advocacy group says have failed to adequately address human trafficking. The nonprofit based its list on several criteria, including whether the state has a law that criminalizes sex trafficking or a law that addresses when a person is forced into providing labor or services. Ohio has neither.
The Senate vote all but ensured a smooth ride to the governor’s desk. House Speaker Armond Budish, D-Beachwood, has made the measure a priority and is optimistic it will be approved in the House, House spokesman David Isaacs said. A spokeswoman for the governor said he would sign the bill into law.
The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association supports the legislation, although the group’s executive director said at a Senate hearing Tuesday he was troubled by a last-minute change to the measure to prevent prosecutors from seeking multiple charges for the same offense. Executive Director John Murphy said existing statutes and court decisions already cover this concern. Murphy worried that including this in the bill would give defense attorneys an opening to challenge cases by arguing that lawmakers intended for the legislation to supersede other laws.
Members of some anti-human trafficking groups were in the Senate chamber to watch the bill pass.
Alex Kreidenweis, the chairman of the Ohio Abolitionist Coalition, said the legislation will help authorities go after human traffickers.
“Ohio prosecutors had to be empowered to do the job they needed to do better,” he said. “The fact that in America, in the land of the free, that we have slaves walking among us today is particularly egregious.”
Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth contributed to this report.