COLUMBUS (WCMH) — In an effort to crackdown on sex trafficking, Columbus City Council approved penalties for purchasing sex within the city.

Columbus City Council approved an amendment to city codes to create a “sexual exploitation” offense and outline penalties associated with the charge. Legislative text included in the meeting agenda defined sexual exploitation as “recklessly inducing or enticing another to engage in sexual activity for hire in exchange for the person giving anything of value to the other person.”

Sex trafficking survivor Mandie Knight, now a resource manager with survivor job training organization Freedom a la Cart, was first introduced to the world of sex for hire through a friend’s boyfriend in her early 20s.

“He made it sound like this big glamorous, lucrative way of living and introduced us to Backpage,” she said, referring to the online marketplace shut down by federal authorities for facilitating prostitution.

Knight explained the trauma she experienced from being sold for sex led to drug use and a cycle of abusive traffickers.

“As I’m doing things with people that I didn’t want to do, it starts eating at you inside and your self-esteem, your self-worth, and things like that,” she said. “I ended up using drugs and got really deep into using. I was on the streets, so I was walking Sullivant Avenue, East Main Street, Livingston, Broad Street, Parsons.”

The lifestyle led to several criminal convictions and then to an intensive probationary program in Franklin County known as CATCH Court. Knight credits the restorative justice program for helping her find sobriety and a way out, but she explained her record followed her.

“We’re hit with prostitution, we’re hit with loitering, we’re hit with soliciting,” she said. “I know when I got sober, I couldn’t get a place. No one wanted to rent to a ‘prostitute.’”

Conversely, Knight said then sex buyers, commonly known as “johns,” rarely face similar convictions or stigmas.

“Penalties for sex buyers have not been accurate for the crime they’re committing. They don’t match,” she said, adding they’re often reduced to low-level disorderly conduct charges.

Before Monday’s approval, the stated penalty for purchasing sex in Columbus City Code is a first-degree misdemeanor, but interviews with repeat offenders conducted by Columbus Police corroborate Knight’s view. They found the average penalty for solicitation is $74 and no jail time. The fines typically did not go up for repeat offenses.

“Getting a slap on the wrist and their charges getting dropped to disorderly conduct isn’t teaching them that this is not OK,” Knight said. “It’s not letting them know they need to look at themselves and maybe there’s something they need help with.”

The provision, introduced by Council Member Mitchell Brown, would separate the offenses for buying and selling sex and create harsher penalties for johns.

“Historically, the consequences for prostitution have unjustly fallen on our neighborhoods and individuals who sell sex, instead of those that traffic and exploit them,” Brown said in a press release announcing the approval. “This proposal focuses on additional accountability for buyers while providing support for those who are exploited.”

A first offense could result in a minimum fine of $300. A second violation within 5 years would cost at least $550 and 10 days in jail. A person convicted more than twice would see a minimum $800 fine and 15 days in jail. At a judge’s discretion, the offender may also be required to attend an education or treatment program.

Knight, who acknowledged other survivors may disagree, thinks the people purchasing sex may also need mental health or addiction counseling.

“I think having harsher consequences will help with the demand reduction, but also having a trauma-informed approach in there would make it even better,” she said. “These people who are buying sex are human beings and they probably have some sort of issue in their life that’s leading them to make those choices, just like I did.”

The new law will create a Survivors of Human Trafficking fund, which will receive 75 percent of funds collected through fines. The fund will be earmarked to support shelter, basic needs, medical treatment, and counseling services for victims of human trafficking.

“I’m looking forward to this being the first step in maybe something bigger down the road,” Knight said.

The provision will go into effect in 30 days.

You can find more information and resources about human trafficking in Ohio by clicking here.