Allegheny County, PA

Tactics Used

Buyer Arrests
Reverse stings
Auto seizure
Community service
Public education
Neighborhood action
SOAP orders
John school
Web stings
License suspension

Allegheny County is in Western Pennsylvania, and contains Pittsburgh, the second-largest city in the state.  The county has experienced a wide array of problems associated with commercial sex, including the homicides of persons involved in selling sex (including 12 of which may have been serial homicides in the 1980s) and child sex trafficking.

To curtail commercial sex sales in the city, the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office and municipal departments (including the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police) has conducted periodic reverse stings since 1981. Operations typically utilize several undercover female officers, who pose as decoys along thoroughfares identified by residents as “hotbeds” of prostitution activity. As sex buyers attempt to solicit the women, they are apprehended by a backup team. If the man was attempting to solicit sex from a vehicle, he may have his car seized and impounded by police. As a warning to other would-be sex buyers, Pittsburgh police release arrestees’ names and other identifying information to local media outlets. In August 2015, for example, as part of the National Day of John Arrests, Pittsburgh police intercepted 61 sex buyers during a two-week anti-prostitution detail. At least one of the men solicited the police decoy while he had a young child in his car.

In August, 2018, Pittsburgh police charged 12 sex workers and 27 of their patrons during a nationally coordinated sting operation meant to reduce sex trafficking. City police participated in the National Johns Suppression Initiative from July 28 to Aug. 22, during which time law enforcement agencies across 12 states target sex buyers.  In its 16 th year, the initiative began in 2011 in Cook County, Ill., and it has grown into a national coalition.  City detectives arrested 17 sex buyers in 2017, and January through August 2018 they had arrested 27 buyers, as well as one individual who was charged with promoting prostitution.

In July, 2019 a report was released by the Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Pennsylvania at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.  The report presented county-level data on arrests for purchasing sex in Pennsylvania (the state has separate statutes for buying versus selling sex) during calendar year 2018.  The report’s data comes from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, and during 2018 there were 32 arrested sex buyers in Allegheny County that were charged under the statute for purchasing sex (18 Pa.C.S. § 5902(e)).  It is important to note that there may have been larger numbers of arrested sex buyers, since some cities and counties may choose to handle such cases by issuing civil citations for violating prostitution ordinances in local courts or magistrate’s offices, rather than charging with a state criminal offenses in district courts.

John School

Following a discussion with residents of the city’s Bluff neighborhood, wherein community members complained that sex buyer’s punishments paled in comparison to those given to individuals selling sex, Pittsburgh police created a john school in 1999. The six-hour course has offered first-time offenders the program to arrested sex buyers, and at least 650 sex buyers have successfully completed the course.  The program has changed configuration and requirements several times in its 20 year history, and was redesigned in 2013.  Updated details about the program will be provided when they are made available to us.  To our knowledge, the following is still true of the program.  The PRIDE Court John School in Allegheny County was started to provide additional sources of funds for the PRIDE program and to re-educate individuals who buy sex.  The same agency that provides services for individuals in the PRIDE program also offers the John School. The fees paid for the John School are redirected to pay for survivor services. Arrested individuals are offered the chance to complete the program.  The case is postponed (charged, but not tried) until the person completes the John School class and returns to court with a certificate of completion. The charges are dropped at that point.

  • Class Details:
    • 6-hour class, 3rd Saturday of the month
    • 5-25 individuals per class, mostly arrested through stings. Rate of arrests is very weather-driven (less stings or arrests in winter); can be canceled due to lack of participants
    • Only 1 opportunity to attend program, but does not need to be a first offense
    • 650 individuals have attended the program; 3 participants have been re-arrested in the county
  • The class covers the following topics:
    • Purpose of being in the class
    • Court/legal process for individuals ordered to the class
    • Personal questions or details of individual cases are never shared
    • Legal consequences for individuals arrested for prostitution across the country – Vehicle seizures, publishing names/pictures in newspapers, billboards, etc.
    • How program came into existence—community clamor to rid the neighborhood of prostitution
    • Laws against prostitution ê Discussion of legalization, Nevada’s laws, etc.
    • Explanation of solicitation charges—possibility of how bad it could be (statutory rape charges, etc.)
    • Health department talks about STDs
    • Police officer shares examples of scarier cases, e.g. boyfriends beating up johns, cars stolen, women living with HIV who continue to engage in prostitution, etc.
    • Program Director talks about the reality of the experiences of women in prostitution and dispels myths
    • Women’s history of abuse, lack of education lack of options in general, and desperate circumstances; mental health and substance abuse issues, recovery process
    • Community member talks about the impact on her neighborhood
    • Survivor of prostitution talks about her experience (a graduate of program who is well prepared for the experience)

Key Partners

  • City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police
  • Pittsburgh Action Against Rape
  • Community Resources of Fayette County

Key Sources

Pittsburgh/Allegheny County John School:

Reverse Stings, Shaming:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Child Endangerment:


State Pennsylvania
Type County
Population 1223000
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