Ohio's human trafficking law is shockingly flawed

By conservative estimates, there are more slaves today than at any other time in history — 27 million people worldwide. Sex trafficking — depicted in the 2008 action-thriller movie Taken — gets the most attention. The U.S. government estimates that up to 18,000 women and girls are trafficked into sexual slavery here each year. But slavery occurs across a number of industries, including construction, janitorial/custodial services, agriculture and domestic labor.

Human trafficking or modern-day slavery is the recruitment, harboring and transportation of people through force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of economic gain through forced labor. The first concerted effort to address this problem in the United States since the Fourteenth Amendment was passed in 1868 was the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) passed by Congress in 2000 — the first comprehensive federal law to address trafficking. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) encourages states to pass their own legislation to support and augment national anti-trafficking efforts.

Considering that the FBI ranks Toledo as one of the top national recruiting grounds for underaged prostitution and defines Ohio as a supply, transfer and destination state for human trafficking in the U.S., state legislation seems essential. But Ohio's efforts have been wanting.

Ohio had no anti-trafficking legislation in 2005 when Innocence Lost, an ongoing FBI investigation into a multi-state sex-trafficking ring, resulted in dozens of arrests for the forced slavery of underaged girls. State Senator Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) introduced Senate Bill 205, a comprehensive anti-trafficking bill modeled after the DOJ's recommended state legislation, but it didn't even make it out of committee. After months of effort to build support for an effective anti-trafficking law, explain the need for the law and educate elected officials, human-trafficking organizations and victims' advocacy groups across the state watched as politicians yielded to pressure from the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association (OPAA). As the group's executive director John Murphy put it, "We have all the laws we need."

Compromise legislation was finally passed in January 2009, so there's a new state anti-trafficking law and a new state commission, headed by attorney general Richard Cordray, set up to study the problem. That sounds like progress, but a leading anti-slavery organization, Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (, says in its recently released Greater Cincinnati Human Trafficking Report that the new law is ineffective.

"Perhaps the best way to describe the law that criminalizes human trafficking in Ohio is to say that there is no law," says the Freedom Center report. "Although valiant efforts were undertaken by a few concerned lawmakers and advocates to embrace the national trend to stamp out this modern form of slavery, the watered-down version of Ohio's answer to the [Trafficking Victim's Protection Act] leaves nothing but room for improvement.

" ... Ohio's Revised Code now contains certain enhancement provisions for sentences related to prosecutions for current crimes such as kidnapping or compelling prostitution. For example, when a kidnapping or abduction is committed and it is found to have been 'in furtherance of human trafficking,' the offender will face mandatory jail time. There are a few other enhancement provisions. However, there is no new offense of human trafficking, although several proposed laws were before our state legislators."

One possible explanation for this ineffectual law is that OPAA's Murphy admitted he hadn't even read the federal anti-trafficking law and couldn't explain how the Ohio law would support or conflict with it. Yet he still made the assertion that his simpler proposal was better and easier to implement.

In an attempt to develop greater awareness of what human trafficking is, the Freedom Center report examined media accounts and court filings to illustrate how human trafficking is being incorrectly identified as other, better-known crimes.

"Human trafficking ... occurs in every metropolitan area in the United States. Unfortunately, due to the hidden and transient nature of the crimes, you will not often see the term 'human trafficking' in the headlines," says the report. "In May of 2006, four supervisors for a large residential home-construction company, along with the owner and six managers for a subcontractor, were arrested for allegedly harboring illegal aliens. The charges against the supervisors were eventually dismissed without prejudice at the request of the U.S. district attorney. However, the subcontractor's owner, as well as his son, his daughter and four longtime crew chiefs pleaded guilty to conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens and were given sentences ranging from three years probation to 18 months imprisonment with three years supervised release plus fines.

"On its face, this could just be a case of hiring illegal immigrants. However, it was reported that the subcontractor provided housing to the illegal alien workers and paid them a substantially lower wage than the industry standard."

Labor-related cases are investigated with a bias toward known crimes, like immigration or labor-law violations. Instead of looking at the living and wage conditions as being forced and the result of individuals existing in debt bondage or having been bought by the employer, the victims are assumed to be guilty of breaking the law. Similarly, prostitution is considered a vice problem and a life that women have "chosen" as opposed to having been kidnapped, beaten and their families threatened if they don't perform as directed.

Some of the survey results illustrate this lack of awareness. Volunteers interviewed 137 people between July 2007 and February 2008. The interview subjects included law enforcement, judges, attorneys, government officials, interpreters, social workers, health-care providers, pastors, reporters and victim advocates; 41 percent believe "they or their organizations have encountered victims of trafficking."

"The survey results showed a surprising lack of awareness and knowledge of the issue of human trafficking, even among those most likely to encounter it," states the report. "Although many survey respondents stated that they did not know the level of public awareness, a vast majority (77 percent) said that the general public's knowledge of trafficking is only poor or fair. This comports with other studies that have shown that the general public lacks awareness of the issue."

The people in professions most likely to respond to an incident involving a victim of human trafficking — referred to as "first responders" — are aware that human trafficking exists but few know what signs to look for, according to the report. This inability to even identify victims illustrates the invisible nature of slavery today and why, according to the U.S. government, less than 1 percent of trafficking cases are solved (compared to 70 percent of murder cases).

"While training on the law is important for all groups, it is particularly important for those groups most likely to encounter trafficking victims first," says the report. "A majority of respondents (57 percent) said they believed that law enforcement is most likely to be the first to encounter trafficking victims. If law enforcement is indeed a first-responder, they must be knowledgeable and well-trained on the issue.

"Yet, 48 percent of law-enforcement respondents said that local law enforcement in the greater Cincinnati area has only a poor or fair knowledge of human trafficking. In fact, 68 percent of law-enforcement survey participants rated their own knowledge of trafficking as poor or fair."

Efforts are already underway to reintroduce anti-trafficking legislation based on the state model proposed by the Department of Justice. The Freedom Center report includes recommendations for strengthening the existing Ohio law.

"Due to its recent passage, Ohio's new anti-trafficking law has yet to be applied," states the reports. "However, its convoluted definition of human trafficking, requirement of a pattern of corrupt activity and lack of labor-trafficking provisions suggest the Ohio law will be somewhat more limited than the TVPA or laws passed by other states. Just as importantly, the new law does not provide for law-enforcement training, agency reporting or services for victims."

Ohio clearly has more work to do in order to increase awareness about and stop human trafficking, in addition to helping victims become truly free.

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