Steve Dettelbach: Fighting Human Trafficking in Ohio

“What you’re doing as a prosecutor is you are trying to make sure that every mother,
every father, every family with someone who’s in trouble has somebody who’s trying to help them.”

Steve Dettelbach believes no one is above the law, no one is below the law, and no one is beyond its reach. During his more than two decades as a prosecutor, Dettelbach used the law to stand up for society’s most vulnerable, including survivors of human trafficking. Indeed, over the last 25 years Dettelbach has repeatedly stood up in courtrooms all over the nation and right here in Ohio to prosecute those who have exploited children and other vulnerable victims of this heinous crime.

As Attorney General, Dettelbach will continue his lifelong fight against modern-day slavery with a plan to protect Ohio communities from traffickers and support victims of this unfathomable crime.

Modern-Day Slavery Right Here in Ohio

In too many Ohio communities, human trafficking is not only a real threat, but a growing one. According to statistics collected by the Ohio Attorney General, human trafficking investigations hit an all-time high in 2017. The numbers are alarming. Ninety-two percent of victims were female. Thirty-seven percent were under the age of 20. Most were victims of sex trafficking, but others were trafficked for labor.

At the same time, Ohio has among the weakest human trafficking laws of any state in the nation. Only three states reported more trafficking cases last year than Ohio. Yet our human trafficking laws leave law enforcement without critical tools to combat this scourge, and leave victims without critical protections and even basic needs like emergency housing and treatment.

Although Ohio has taken many important steps to curb trafficking over the last decade, Dettelbach understands that this is an area where we cannot let up. As Attorney General, he will work with law enforcement and leaders from all communities to protect Ohioans and help victims of human trafficking.

A Lifetime Commitment to Protecting the Most Vulnerable 

Dettelbach served on the front lines of the fight against human trafficking for more than two decades. As a young prosecutor at the Justice Department, he successfully prosecuted what was then the largest human trafficking case in the country when he sent the operators of a California sweatshop to jail for illegally smuggling 70 Thai women into the country and using them as slaves. Later, as United States Attorney for Northern Ohio, Dettelbach and his team of prosecutors worked with law enforcement to set up task forces and convict more than 40 defendants who preyed on young girls and other vulnerable people in Ohio. These heinous criminals included:

Jeremy Mack, an Elyria man sentenced to life in prison after forcing four women, including a 16-year-old girl, to work as prostitutes.

Brady Jackson, a Toledo man sentenced to 15 years after he was caught advertising two children for prostitution on Backpage.com.

Jordie Callahan and Jessica Hunt of Ashland, who were sentenced 30 years and 32 years respectively, for holding a woman with cognitive disabilities and her toddler daughter captive in a basement and forcing them to perform labor.

Aroldo Castillo-Serrano and Angelica Pedro-Juan, who were sentenced 15 years and 10 years respectively, for smuggling Guatemalan minors into Ohio, holding them in inhumane conditions and forcing them to work on a corporate egg farm in Marion.

Continuing the Fight Against Human Trafficking

As Attorney General, Dettelbach will use his experience to ramp up the fight against human trafficking in Ohio. His plan will create new resources for law enforcement to catch traffickers, give prosecutors new tools to send criminals to jail, and give victims the resources they need to begin to rebuild their lives.

Dettelbach’s plan:

  1. Toughen the penalties for soliciting sex with minors.

There should be no question about what happens to criminals who sexually exploit children—they should be put behind bars. But Ohio’s penalties for people who pay for sex with minors are too weak. Dettelbach’s plan would increase the penalty for soliciting sex with minors, and calls for tougher penalties for repeat offenders. 

  1. Crack down on child pornography.

Make no mistake: child pornography is child abuse. And there is a link between child pornography and sex trafficking. Research shows that nearly half of sex trafficking victims are forced to make pornography. People who sexually exploit children by creating, and distributing pornography need to be punished. But the punishment in Ohio for these crimes against children are too soft. We should strengthen the penalties in Ohio for child pornography.

  1. Expand access to emergency housing and other services for sex trafficking survivors.

During an investigation and even after criminal case is over, human trafficking survivors typically require significant care to recover. The exploitation and trauma they suffer is unimaginable. Survivors need access to emergency housing, medical and mental health treatment, and legal help. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of many fine NGOs, Ohio is woefully inadequate when it comes to the availability of both safe and appropriate emergency housing and proper mental health services for trafficking victims. In part through better support and funding for Ohio non-profits, Dettelbach will strengthen our response for victims of human trafficking—particularly for children.

  1. Expressly ban using the internet to sell minors for sex.

Technology has changed the way criminals operate. The law needs to change too. Right now, Ohio law does not explicitly ban selling sex with minors over the internet. That’s absurd. Dettelbach’s plan would make selling minors on the internet a second-degree felony for a first offense.

  1. Outlaw sex trafficking of 16- and 17-year olds under any circumstances.

Ohio is one of only three states that require a stronger standard of proof when it comes to convicting pimps who traffic 16- and 17-year old minors. The current law requires proof of “force, fraud, or coercion”—as if a 16 year old could somehow choose to be a commercial sex slave. Dettelbach’s plan would eliminate that requirement. Legislation that would make this change has already been introduced in the Ohio legislature. H.B. 461, sponsored by Rep. Fedor, is pending in the House. It needs to pass, and if it doesn’t, Dettelbach will aggressively advocate for it as Attorney General.

  1. Close legal loopholes for pimps of children.

A child cannot consent to being sold for sex. Yet Ohio law does not expressly prohibit pimps who sell minors for sex from claiming the child “consented” as a legal defense. We should enact a law expressly prohibiting a consent defense on any commercial sexual offense when the victim is a minor. This makes it clear that if you sell a child for sex, you will go to prison.

  1. Penalize businesses and individuals who profit from sex trafficking.

Sex traffickers don’t operate alone. They have networks of smugglers, illegal massage parlors, and others who help them commit their crimes. Ohio needs tools to make it harder for traffickers to operate here. That means cracking down on businesses or people who knowingly provide transportation, lodging, or other services that help human traffickers.

  1. Ban child-sex tourism.

As the home to a number of world-class cities, Ohio routinely hosts high-profile events like political conventions and sporting events. Sadly, as Dettelbach saw firsthand as a federal prosecutor, these events often attract traffickers. Today, Ohio doesn’t specifically prohibit the horrific practice of child-sex tourism. Dettelbach’s plan calls for a law that specifically prohibits selling travel for the purpose of engaging in sexual exploitation of, or paying for prostitution of, a minor.

  1. Work with county prosecutors and local law enforcement to establish additional Human Trafficking Task Forces to cover the entire State.

As U.S. Attorney, Steve worked with the FBI and local law enforcement in forming and leading Human Trafficking Task Forces in Toledo and Cleveland. These task forces investigated and prosecuted scores of cases in Northern Ohio. Later, state officials also participated, but there is still not sufficient statewide coverage for such operational task forces. Working with county prosecutors and local and federal law enforcement, we should establish regional task forces to cover the rest of Ohio, making the fight against human trafficking a statewide effort.