Gov. John Kasich on Wednesday signed into law legislation that provides more resources and protections to victims of human trafficking and stiffens penalties facing criminal offenders.
At a ceremony in Toledo, which is one of the top recruiting cities for young sex-trafficking victims, Kasich praised state lawmakers for their bipartisan support of legislation that will help combat the troubling activity of modern slavery.
“In regard to this horrible, horrible crime, we are throwing the book at the abusers — not just the traffickers, but those who profit from the trafficking and those who are somehow in the chain of trafficking,” Kasich said. “We are no longer looking the other way.”
The law— which took effect immediately because it contained an emergency provision — makes trafficking a first-degree felony that carries a mandatory 10- to 15-year prison sentence, and it requires convicted pimps and traffickers to register as sex offenders.
The law also increases penalties for people who have sex with juvenile trafficking victims, and it gives victims the ability to sue their captors in civil court.
Additionally, the law also helps victims by allowing adults to expunge crimes from their records that were connected to their enslavement, and it helps young victims by establishing a diversion program that can wipe away criminal charges. Law enforcement now can seize assets belonging to traffickers to pay for victim services.
More than 800 victims of trafficking have been rescued in Ohio since 2008, and that number is bound to grow because of improving awareness of the crime and better methods of identifying and helping victims and prosecuting offenders, said Rep. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, the lead sponsor of the legislation.
“We will probably double or triple that within a year,” she said. “It’s our duty and responsibility to rescue them.”
An estimated 1,080 children in Ohio become victims of human trafficking each year, and about 3,020 more children are at-risk of becoming victims, according to the Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force.
Some of the biggest hurdles preventing more victims of trafficking from coming forward and alerting law enforcement of criminal activity include fear of prosecution and fear of retaliation from captors.
The Dayton Daily News on May 19 reported that some suspects in sex trafficking cases were avoiding prosecution because their alleged victims were unwilling to testify against them, often because the woman were too afraid.
But the new law also increases penalties of traffickers who threaten or intimidate victims who cooperate with authorities.
Officials said cooperation from victims is only half the battle. They said they need members of the public to learn to spot signs of trafficking in order to report suspicious activity. Law enforcement officers, service providers and first responders also need training to recognize evidence of the crime.
“Law enforcement can’t solve the human trafficking problem alone, which is why teaching the public about the problem is so crucial,” said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.
The Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force on Wednesday provided Kasich with a report containing 26 recommendations about how the state can better serve and treat victims and coordinate law enforcement efforts. The task force noted that the public’s lack of knowledge of trafficking is a major concern.
Recommendations from the task force include revising federal block grant funding to make local organizations eligible for funds for anti-trafficking services and treatment; developing a standard screening process for state agencies who interact with victims who need services; and creating a statewide public awareness campaign on human trafficking.
Officials said awareness of human trafficking appears to be improving.
The number of calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline from Ohio increased to 297 in 2011 from 234 in 2010. Calls originating in the Miami Valley increased by 43 percent to 23 in 2011, and the center received 18 calls originating from this region between January 1 and March 31 of this year.
Fedor said the new law encourages restaurants, hotels, massage parlors, rest stops, strip clubs and other establishments to hang posters that provide information for victims and potential witnesses of trafficking, including the phone number for the human trafficking hotline.
Fedor said she is pleased that Ohio now has one of the most comprehensive human trafficking laws in the nation, but it only provides the tools to fight the activity — it is up to law enforcement, service providers and the public to use them.
“In my opinion, the work is just beginning,” she said.
Contact this reporter at (937) 225-0749 or cfrolik@DaytonDailyNews.com.
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