Human trafficking is a horrible form of slavery and the sense of violation experienced by those victimized by it can be profound.
A loophole in an existing state law may result in 16- and 17-year-olds who have been trapped in human trafficking being doubly victimized because it makes them liable for possible criminal charges of prostitution.
Federal law already categorizes such individuals as victims, but a provision in the state's "safe harbor" law only covers those up to age 15. Those who are older, including 16- and 17-year-olds coerced into sex, are not covered despite the fact that they are legally juveniles. Because of this, they may face criminal prosecution for acts committed while in human captivity.
State Rep. Teresa Fedor of Toledo plans to offer legislation to safeguard the rights of all juvenile victims of human trafficking. "Children are not consenting to be victims, they're not consenting to be voluntarily raped," Fedor said recently.
According to the Ohio Human Trafficking Commission, a preliminary report on the scope of the problem in Ohio cited 13 years old as the most common age in Ohioans to become victims of child sex trafficking; nearly half of the victims in the study were under 18 when they were first trafficked. Nationally, over 100,000 children are thought to be involved in the sex trade.
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds in Ohio, under the law, are children. No child chooses to be involved in human trafficking, yet under the present law these girls and boys remain liable to a charge of prostitution after being forcibly compelled to engage in sex trade. That's a terrible injustice.
Fedor has been involved in legislative efforts against human trafficking throughout her tenure in Columbus. She was a primary sponsor of legislation to treat juveniles charged with prostitution as victims rather than criminals, including enabling them to expunge related convictions.
Another measure pending at the Statehose would enable Ohioans who have been forced into prostitution to have resulting criminal charges removed from their records. That proposal is being offered by senators Scott Oelslager and Stephanie Kunze.
"All too often victims of human trafficking are forced to engage in a life of crime while coerced into selling their bodies for money," Kunze said during recent testimony. "This life is not one anyone seeks out. It is abusive and filled with force and duress. Women who escape the abusive and cruel world of forced prostitution should not be responsible for crimes they committed when a criminal gave them a choice between their life or theft."
Senate Bill 4 would expand the list of crimes that can be expunged from records to include offenses of individuals compelled into prostitution.
SB 4 and Fedor's proposal would help to ensure that victims of human trafficking -- victims of a horrible crime -- are not stigmatized or doubly victimized by laws that threaten to penalize them for actions beyond their control. We hope legislators respond favorably to these measures.