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Columbus City Council Again Tables Legislation To Further Criminalize Human Trafficking

Columbus Council member Mitchell Brown
James Miller
Columbus Division of Fire
Columbus Councilmember Mitchell Brown proposed legislation that would increase penalties for individuals found guilty of sexual exploitation. Advocacy organizations push for decriminalization and direct support to sex trade victims and sex workers.

Columbus City Council for a second time tonight will table legislation that would further criminalize human trafficking.

The proposed legislation would increase penalties for individuals found guilty of sexual exploitation, with the intention of sending funds generated to organizations that provide services to victims of trafficking.

Jennifer Suchland, an Ohio State associate professor in the department of women's, gender and sexuality studies, has worked as a researcher and advocate on this issue for over 20 years.

Suchland said she wrote a letter to council last week urging them to not further criminalize the sex trade and that a group of local organizations, led by Advocating Opportunity, which supports trafficked and exploited persons, recently wrote similar letters.

She is not certain what the reasons were for tabling the legislation but said that the public increasingly is against further criminalization.

“As more and more people really learn about what this proposed change would do, I think more and more people who are concerned about human rights and human trafficking are concerned about making these changes,” she said.

A spokesperson from Councilmember Mitchell Brown's office said in an email that the legislation is being tabled in order to “ensure all stakeholders have been afforded the opportunity to provide feedback.”

Suchland said that council should send resources directly towards organizations already on the ground working with sex workers and victims of trafficking, rather than further criminalizing the trade.

“Anything you do to hyper-criminalize, the city will spend more money on policing and jails, and that’s counterproductive to spending more dollars on actual people who need services,” she said.

As a result of further criminalization, Suchland said buyers of sex will attempt to avoid getting caught by accessing the trade in the deeper “underground” areas of the business.

“So the demand isn’t actually reduced; it’s redirected,” Suchland said. “Moreover, the result of added criminalization creates a more hostile environment for both potential victims and for people who are in the sex trade and are not victims of human trafficking.”

Authorizing law enforcement to engage further with the trade would only worsen the problem, she said, because the police statistically cause more violence against people willingly working in the sex trade than johns do. She pointed to multiple studies that have found this to be the case, including from the National Institutes of Health and Yale University.

“The police are actually a major source of violence,” Suchland said, while adding that indigenous people, people of color, and migrants are more likely to experience police harm and harassment. Queer and gender non-binary persons are especially vulnerable to such treatment.

"Also note that it is difficult to study this topic because victims of police harassment and violence who are in the sex trade have little to no recourse," she added.

Suchland pointed to the recent murder of Donna Dalton, who was a sex worker, by Columbus Police officer Andrew Mitchell as a local example of such instances.

"This case has called attention to the problems in Columbus’ law enforcement-based response to sex work and human trafficking,” she said.

There is an unfortunate aspect of Brown's proposed change that equates buying sex with sexual exploitation, Suchland also added.

"And who would ever not be against that?" she asked. "The sex trade is not the same as exploitation, and sex exploitation happens in many industries," including the entertainment business, where many people came forward as part of the #MeToo Movement.

She said by pointing out that sex work and sexual exploitation are not the same, more attention can be paid to real people who need and deserve help.

Brown’s spokesperson said that after consulting with stakeholders, their office hopes to reintroduce the legislation soon.