A Look at How Legislation in Ohio, Past and Pending, Seeks to Address Human Trafficking in the State

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May 10, 2018 -- By Sarah Tuckowski

In a recent interview with Michelle Gillcrist, Managing Attorney at the Office of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, updates were provided surrounding pending legislation in Ohio to better address human trafficking. For Michelle Gillcrist, past legislation provided tools and resources needed to initially support victims. However, Gillcrist believes that the pending legislation will provide greater long term support to victims, among other impacts, if passed into law.

Q: How has the state of ohio addressed human trafficking, specifically through legislation, in the past? how has past legislation impacted individuals who have experienced human trafficking?

Gillcrist: In the past, there were two major pieces of legislation that passed, one of those being The Safe Harbor Law. The Safe Harbor Law did several things. First off, it raised the penalty of human trafficking to a first-degree felony with a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. Second, this law also required anyone convicted of human trafficking to register as a Tier 2 sex offender. Third, the law created an abeyance procedure that allows juvenile judges to hold a hearing to determine whether a minor is a human trafficking victim. If so, it provides a procedure for the judge to temporarily set aside a complaint for a prostitution related or human trafficking related offense pending the completion of diversion actions. Finally, it raised the penalty for obstruction of justice in trafficking persons cases to a second-degree felony to discourage traffickers from intimidating witnesses to discourage their cooperation in the case. 

The End Demand Act is another piece of past legislation that passed in Ohio. Under this Act, the penalty for "johns" soliciting sex of minors increased to a third-degree felony. Prior to this Act, this charge was just a misdemeanor. The End Demand Act also makes it easier to terminate the parental rights when a parent/guardian is responsible for trafficking their child. The law also enables prosecutors to automatically charge someone with human trafficking if the individual is a minor younger than sixteen or an individual who is developmentally disabled. Before, they had to prove the minor was compelled to engage in prostitution to make the charge stick. On the federal level, youth under the age of eighteen are automatically considered a victim of human trafficking. Currently, some state legislators in Ohio are working to increase the age in Ohio to eighteen in order to be more aligned with the federal law. 

Q: Currently, how is the state of ohio trying to address human trafficking through new legislation? how is this going to impact individuals who have experienced human trafficking?

Gillcrist: Right now, there are a few pieces of legislation in the General Assembly at the state level that address human trafficking. Some pieces of legislation are actively working to expand what charges can be expunged from a victim's record, specifically through HOUSE BILL 56 and SENATE BILL 4. Currently, the only charge that can be expunged from a survivor's record is a charge relating to prostitution. Sometimes a survivor might be accused of stealing food, but they are taking food because the trafficker is withholding nutrition from them. There is a desire by some legislators to also include charges, such as charges related to drug possession and theft, that can also be expunged. 

In addition, SENATE BILL 244 seeks to reconsider penalties for "trafficking" or "promoting prostitution" charges. Even though we have that mandatory minimum from The Safe Harbor Law, traffickers sometimes are not convicted on trafficking charges and find themselves convicted of a lesser charge. These lesser charges often do not carry severe penalties. What Senate Bill 244 would do is increase penalties for repeated traffickers to close the revolving door of traffickers cycling in and out of the criminal justice system. 

HOUSE BILL 461 would better align state law with federal law. At the federal level, any youth under eighteen who is charged with prostitution is automatically considered a victim of human trafficking. However, in Ohio, any youth under sixteen who is charged with prostitution is automatically considered a victim of human trafficking. This bill tries to align Ohio with the federal law, specifically regarding at what age is a youth considered a victim of trafficking. In addition, it seeks to say that the juvenile court should not proceed with a complaint or charge of prostitution on a youth if they are sixteen or seventeen. 

Q: Outside of legislation, how is ohio addressing human trafficking?

Gillcrist: In Cuyahoga County, as well as some other counties across Ohio, there are Safe Harbor dockets in the juvenile court system. If a child or youth is identified as a human trafficking victim, they will try to transfer them to the Safe Harbor Docket. Just like other speciality dockets, such as the Veteran's Docket, these courts work with victims to overcome what is causing them to be in the criminal justice system. If there is a substance abuse issue that is brought up, the youth is then connected with counselors. If the young person is trying to cope with trauma, the youth is then connected with a mental health specialist. If the young person meets all of the court's requirements, they will graduate from the program and have the charge erased from their record. 

We also need to focus on how to stop, or substantially lessen, the demand for human trafficking. Right now, the Attorney General's Human Trafficking Commission includes a Demand Reduction subcommittee. This subcommittee is looking at ways to change the dynamic of demand before it even starts. 

Q: legislation is often long and can be confusing. what are a few pieces of information that you think are important for everyone to know?

Gillcrist: Previous legislation has provided some tools and resources to help victims initially. However, I think these current bills provide victims support for the long haul. The proposals give victims hope. The proposed pieces of legislation try to address the long term needs of human trafficking victims, and provide tools to help give victims a fresh start while increasing penalties for traffickers.

Q: What can concerned citizens do to support legislation?

Gillcrist: Citizens can go to the Ohio General Assembly website (click the button below), put in their zip code, and find out who are their State Representatives and State Senators. Call those individuals or write to them to express your support for these bills. It is important that legislators hear from their constituents on these bills and reasons why they'd like their legislator to support them. Also, citizens can get involved with their local human trafficking coalitions and collaboratives, by among other things, providing input, attending meetings, or helping with public education. You can find your local collaborative by clinking the button below.

Andrea Wedren