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Should Ohio Expunge Criminal Records Of Human Trafficking Victims?

Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force

Lawmakers in the Ohio General Assembly are landing on different sides of a debate over the criminal records of human trafficking victims. The question? What measures the state should take to conceal, and even wipe, out those records.

Niki Clum, with the Office of the Ohio Public Defender, argued in front of a House committee for a bill that would burn the criminal pasts of people who committed those offenses while they were victims of human trafficking.

"Expungements of these criminal records will allow these victims to move past the criminal activity of which they were forced to engage and become productive members of society,” Clum says.

The legislation, SB 4, would allow the court to expunge any crime other than murder, aggravated murder and rape. Its primary sponsors are Republicans, Sens. Stephanie Kunze of Franklin County and Scott Oelslager of Stark County, but it has strong bipartisan support.

There are still some members who have their issues, though. Republican state Rep. Bill Seitz says there’s not enough accountability in the bill to make sure the person was actually trafficked.

“So there is nothing in the bill that gives the prosecution an ability to challenge the human trafficking victim’s mere allegation that the crime was committed as the result of being trafficked,” Seitz says.

Seitz suggests attaching a provision that would make expungement contingent on the victim identifying their trafficker.

As the committee ended its hearing, Seitz’ fellow Republican Rep. Jim Butler reflected on the merits of the bill, noting that the intention is good. However, he argues that the measure paints with too broad of a brush by only excluding those three major crimes.

“But for other offenses that are a very big threat to public safety, such as kidnapping, for example, that would, under this bill, be able to be expunged, and I think we need to look at each offense and determine whether that’s an offense that could be expunged or not,” Butler says.

Butler would like to see a more selective approach. He would also like to draw a difference between what can be expunged, which wipes a record out completely, and what could be concealed from the general public.

“Instead of it just being every offense except for three, I think we need to take our time and really go through and look at offenses that make sense to expunge so that somebody who is a victim of human trafficking can get that fresh start in life,” Butler says.

But these arguments are clouding out the bigger issue, according to Democratic Rep. Teresa Fedor. She says a victim is a victim no matter what they did, and there shouldn’t be any strings attached to how they clear their record.

“That condition, you’re under duress,” Fedor says. “You’re beaten. You’re drugged. You are a slave. Someone has power over you and you have to do whatever they say or the torture continues, the beatings continue some even lose their lives.”

Fedor has been known to be a leading advocate for human trafficking victims. In 2012, she sponsored the “Safe Harbor Act,” which allowed a victim to have prostitution convictions expunged.

SB 4 passed the Senate unanimously in May, but appears like it will sit in the House Criminal Justice committee, without a chance to move onto the floor, until the beginning of next year.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.