Lawmakers Debate Expunging Criminal Records for Victims of Human Trafficking

Dec 30, 2017

Niki Clum, a legislative liaison with the Office of the Ohio Public Defender, argues in front of a House committee in favor of a bill that would expunge the records of human trafficking victims.
Credit Statehouse News Bureau

Lawmakers in the Statehouse are landing on different sides of a debate over the criminal records of human trafficking victims. The argument is over what measures the state should take to conceal and even wipe out those records.

How the bill will help
Niki Clum is with the Office of the Ohio Public Defender. She’s arguing 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.”

The legislation would allow the court to expunge any crime other than murder, aggravated murder and rape. This is a measure sponsored by Republicans with strong bipartisan support. But there are still some members who have objections.

The legislation still needs work
That includes Republican Rep. Bill Seitz, who 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 suggests attaching a provision that would make expungement contingent on the victim identifying their trafficker.

Should offenses be looked at separately and more in-depth?
As the committee ends its hearing, Seitz’ fellow Republican Rep. Jim Butler reflects on the merits of the bill, noting that the intention is good. However, he argues that the measure is too broad because it excludes those three major crimes.

“Other offenses that are a very big threat to public safety such as kidnapping, for example, 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.”

'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 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.”  

Victims are victims
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 on how they clear their record.

“You’re under duress. 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 a leading advocate for human trafficking victims. In 2012 she sponsored the Safe Harbor Act, which allowed a victim to have prostitution convictions expunged.

The bill won't have a chance to move out of committee and onto the floor until the beginning of next year.