Mar. 12—JCOLUMBUS — Bipartisan bills about to be introduced in both the Ohio House and Senate would allow former sex trafficking victims to ask courts to expunge past crimes even if they had not been convicted of prostitution or related offenses.
The expanding Human Trafficking Justice Act would continue the legislative march of recent years toward treating those picked up for sex offenses while trafficked more as victims in need of treatment than as criminals.
“The victims are not always on the street corner being picked up for prostitution,” Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) said. “They may have been forced to steal or sell drugs for their trafficking, and that will have to be expunged to restart their lives but can’t because they were never arrested for those required predicate offenses.
“These individuals should not be punished further by their victimization, just because they do not have a longer criminal record,” she said.
In recent years lawmakers have sought to make it easier for past trafficking victims to expunge criminal records that can serve as barriers to such things as employment, professional licenses, and housing.
The bill would remove the requirement that victims first have records of prostitution, solicitation, or loitering in order to be eligible for expungement of other offenses.
Ms. Fedor said the inclusion of the predicate offenses was part of a compromise made to get prior trafficking-related expungement passed. But use of the internet, cell phones, and massage parlors make it less likely that victims will be arrested on street corners.
“The expungement process is an intentionally fairly hard process,” said Sasha Naiman, deputy director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. She noted applicants must prove they had been trafficked and that the crimes they are seeking to have expunged resulted from that victimization. Hearings are held, and prosecutors have the opportunity to object.
“Frankly, it’s a fairly heavy burden on the survivor, but in the end, if you’re successful, there’s this amazing outcome,” Ms. Naiman said. “You’re truly moving past the past.”
Ms. Fedor noted that Ohio — at 4,209 calls involving 1,032 reported victims — was fourth in the nation in terms of contacts with the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2019. The subjects of these calls to 1-888-373-7888 were most likely to be female and minors.
“The intent of our new legislation is to continue to offer hope and a new path for success for those who have been victims of trafficking…,” said Sen. Stephanie Kunze (R., Hilliard), a champion of prior trafficking-related expungement law.
“It will really allow for the victim to be able to qualify for expungement in ways that we didn’t even know were going to be further problematic when we did Senate Bill 4 just two General Assemblies ago,” she said.
In recent years, Ohio has enacted laws to steer trafficking victims away from jail cells toward drug treatment, counseling, and other services while increasing penalties for both those who trafficked them and the “johns” who bought their services.
A 2005 federal sting operation in Harrisburg, Pa., put Ohio in the same company as cities like Las Vegas and Miami as major recruiting hubs for sex traffickers. Of 177 women and girls caught up in that sting, 77 — including a 10-year-old girl — were from the Toledo area.
First Published March 11, 2021, 12:44pm