Decriminalizing Victims

Making A Case For Human Trafficking Laws In Ohio

If someone holds a gun to your head and forces you to rob a bank, you're not held responsible for the crime. You had no choice if you wanted to stay alive. And if that standard makes sense, it seems reasonable that someone forced into prostitution because of a threat to her life or the lives of her family members shouldn't be charged with that crime either.

The federal government and 39 states have used such a standard to create laws against human trafficking - the transportation, harboring, selling or employment of a person through the means of force, fraud or coercion for the purposes of forced servitude. Ohio is considering similar legislation, but the effort is opposed by an unlikely group: the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association (OPPA).

"We have all the laws we need," says OPPA Executive Director John Murphy. "We already have existing laws on the books dealing with many of the provisions including kidnapping, abduction, compelling prostitution and others."

Murphy believes including words like "human trafficking," "debt bondage" and "slavery" in the Ohio Revised Code doesn't accomplish anything from a legal standpoint.

"I do not think there is any value in including these terms in the law as far as the efficacy of the law," he says. "It might make a few people feel better, but it's not going to make a lot of difference. They don't see the word 'slavery' in the code, they don't see 'human trafficking' in the code and they assume our laws are not adequate. They may not use the magic words that they want to see, but that's beside the point."

"They" includes a host of people who are proposing and supporting human trafficking legislation at the state level. There currently are three bills at various stages of consideration: House Bill 15, Senate Bill 23 and Senate Bill 205. The one that's most comprehensive and effective, according to Jessica Donohue-Dioh, is SB 205, sponsored by State Sen. Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo).

Donohue-Dioh is coordinator for End Slavery Cincinnati, one of hundreds of coalitions set up by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to implement federal human trafficking legislation at the city and state level. Donohue-Dioh, who works with human trafficking victims and FBI investigators in Cincinnati and Texas, challenges the OPPA assertion that the law isn't needed.

"Look at the cases that have involved [human trafficking] in Toledo," she says. "Pimps were prosecuted in Pennsylvania and Florida because there was no state statute. Those pimps could have been stopped earlier on and they could have been prosecuted in the state of Ohio. We shouldn't have to depend on other states and the federal government to pick up our slack for crimes in Ohio."

The Toledo case was part of "Innocence Lost," an ongoing effort by the FBI to eradicate child prostitution that broke up a 13-state trafficking ring in which Toledo-area teens and girls from other states were forced into prostitution and shuttled to various truckstops in Pennsylvania and Ohio. "If 39 other states and our federal government can recognize this is a separate crime, why can't Ohio?" says Donohoe-Dioh. "The main part of trafficking is the methods that are used, and [that's] why it's so important to recognize it separate and differentiate it from other types of crimes.

"The elements of force, fraud and coercion are different from what might typically be used to entice someone into prostitution. Prostitution and importuning laws don't cover the method - that's looking at the end, not the means."

Law enforcement isn't trained to look for or identify signs of trafficking because they look at the familiar crime and little else - another reason SB 205 is needed, according to Donohoe-Dioh.

"The feds need the local law enforcement," she says. "These cases are incredibly complicated. Having the feds only being the ones doing the investigating isn't effective. They're not on the street. They don't know what's happening on a day-to-day basis. They don't know the local players." The law also defines a victims' bill of rights that recognizes and identifies the needs of individuals forced into modern-day slavery. The victims are one of Murphy's primary complaints about the proposed legislation.

"It's very difficult to get witnesses who are able and willing to testify," he says. "Most are frightened, are from a different country and don't speak English, so it's difficult to get good witnesses. That's the problem." The idea that all victims are foreign nationals who speak a foreign language is just one myth that calls into question Murphy's grasp of the breadth and scope of human trafficking, Donohue-Dioh says. The people he wants to testify likely are perceived by prosecutors as committing crimes, she says.

"There are plenty of cases in other states and on the federal level where witnesses have come forward to testify," she says. "With a human trafficking law the person doing the exploiting is the one who is being criminalized."

Murphy admits he's never read the federal human trafficking legislation, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act passed in 2000, so he's unaware of the way in which local laws would help support the feds.

"The Department of Justice gives model legislation to states about human trafficking," says Donohue-Dioh. "It's a place to start and then each state customizes it to address their unique issues, geography and so on. That's what Fedor's law is based on. Current laws aren't adequate because human trafficking is a different crime."

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