Authorities in Ohio recently arrested 160 people who are suspected patrons of sex workers, as part of a weeklong crackdown on human trafficking throughout the state. The Ohio attorney general's office announced the bust on Monday.
The crackdown, called "Operation Buyer's Remorse," aimed to arrest "those trying to buy sex and to identify survivors of human trafficking," the office said in a news release.
A vast majority of the individuals arrested — 149 of 160 — were men suspected of being "johns," and who were subsequently arrested and charged with engaging in prostitution. Two others were arrested for allegedly seeking to have sex with minors, and another six were arrested for promoting prostitution, according to the attorney general. The remaining arrests involved illegal possession of narcotics and/or firearms, or other outstanding warrants.
"Law enforcement across Ohio teamed up in a concerted effort to stem the demand that fuels human trafficking," Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said in a statement Tuesday. "The success of this operation is measured not only by the number of arrests but also by the resources offered to survivors of human trafficking and the intelligence gathered that will propel long-term investigations forward."
In a video that accompanied his office's announcement about the crackdown, Yost, addressing patrons of sex workers, added: "Operation Buyer's Remorse was all about targeting the demand. It's to send a message, 'You don't know if you're contributing to human trafficking when you buy sex in Ohio. Don't buy sex in Ohio.'"
James Schultz, who serves as the police chief in Willoughby, Ohio, was one of a handful of local authorities who also spoke in the video.
"What we found recently is there's sometimes, there's large networks involved in this. And the people that are involved in it at the ground level really are the victims," Schultz said. "They're compelled to do this. They're forced to do this."
Operation Buyer's Remorse was led by an investigative commission out of the attorney general's office that focuses on organized crime, and focused on every part of the state including areas in and around major cities like Columbus, Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Youngstown, Marietta and Portsmouth. Eight task forces from human trafficking and major crimes divisions conducted a series of sting operations between Sept. 25 and Sept. 30 to identify and arrest suspects, in coordination with local law enforcement agencies.
In addition to the 160 arrests, authorities carried out search warrants on 11 massage parlors suspected of human trafficking, which are part of long-term, ongoing probes, the attorney general's office said.
Prostitution is illegal in Ohio, with various state laws prohibiting people from compelling, soliciting and procuring sex from sex workers. Involvement in prostitution, as a patron, can carry potential charges in Ohio that range from misdemeanors to felonies, depending on the act in question.
Advocacy groups have long been calling for legislators to decriminalize sex work in Ohio and elsewhere in the U.S. One organization, called Decriminalize Sex Work, argues that punitive anti-prostitution measures may increase discrimination and stigma surrounding sex workers and uses Ohio legislation as an example. Legislation often conflates human trafficking and consensual sex work, the organization says, noting in research shared online that "anti-trafficking laws make it impossible for victims and witnesses to report exploitation without risking prosecution."
"The criminalization of sex work makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence on the job and less likely to report violence. It prevents sex workers from accessing health care and other critical services, feeds an out of control mass incarceration system, and further marginalizes some of society's most vulnerable groups, such as trans women of color and immigrants," reads a statement by the ACLU posted to its website.
Human Rights Watch points to the importance of laws that "clearly distinguish between sex work and crimes like human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children," to help protect sex workers as well as survivors of sex crimes.
CBS News contacted Decriminalize Sex Work, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU for comment on Operation Buyer's Remorse but did not receive immediate replies.
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