Luzerne County, PA

Tactics Used

Reverse stings
Shaming
Auto seizure
Community service
Public education
Neighborhood action
SOAP orders
John school
Letters
Cameras
Web stings
License suspension

Luzerne County is located in central Pennsylvania, and the city of Wilkes Barre is the county seat and population center. Other populous communities include Hazleton, Kingston, Nanticoke, and Pittston. The region has well-documented history of sex trafficking and prostitution activity.

The county contained towns that were stops on a domestic sex trafficking circuit in the 1970s and 1980s. The “pimp circuit,” as it was then called, ran along highway corridors in central Pennsylvania (e.g., Allentown, Reading, Harrisburg, Scranton, Wilkes Barre) and upstate New York (Schenectady, Albany, Buffalo). Like in most areas, there is also a long history of local street prostitution, and commercial sex advertised online and occurring anywhere within Luzerne County. There is evidence of prostitution and sex trafficking still occurring in the city. For example, in December 2013 two men were charged in federal court for their roles as part of an underage prostitution ring. The men were part of a group of five alleged pimps (or more accurately, child sex traffickers) who prostituted underage girls and advertised their services through photos on a website. The two Pittston residents were indicted by a federal grand jury in Scranton on charges of sex trafficking of children and producing and distributing child pornography, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The men conspired to recruit at least three minor females — and attempted to recruit a fourth — to engage in prostitution in Luzerne, Lackawanna and Dauphin counties. The men used cell phones to produce and transmit images of child pornography which were used in “escort services” online advertisements, rented motel rooms for customers to meet with minors for sex, and shared in the profits of the prostitution activities. The men were charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, sex trafficking of children, conspiracy to produce child pornography, three counts of production of child pornography, one count of conspiracy to transport and ship child pornography, and three counts of transporting and shipping child pornography. In 2016, a woman in Harvey’s Lake faced prostitution and drug charges for selling sex online to support a drug habit, and also trafficking drugs. The investigation began when a landlord told police suspicious activity. Police investigated, and found bags of heroin and syringes filled with heroin, or empty syringes, all over the home.

An effort to aggressively tackle consumer-level demand in the 1980s and early 1990s in Wilkes Barre appeared to have been successful, and depressed the market for purchased sex to the point that the city was taken off the domestic sex trafficking circuit. In interviews conducted for the National Assessment, police department staff said that through the mid-1980s, traditional interventions had been tried and found ineffective: arresting prostituted women accomplished little (trafficked women soon left for the next stop on the circuit, and local women simply returned to the streets), and prosecution of pimps had been attempted, but never successfully. In 1986, Wilkes-Barre police tried a new approach, conducting large-scale reverse stings coupled with publicizing the identities of arrestees. In each of the first several operations, they arrested from 50 to 100 men who were issued citations and ordered to pay fines. Arrestee identities were included in press releases which ran in the local Sunday newspaper. After two years of these efforts, police concluded that Wilkes-Barre had been taken off the “pimp circuit.” According to the police department, the combination of reverse stings and shaming removed Wilkes-Barre from a domestic trafficking circuit, and reduced the number of women engaged in street prostitution locally by 75%. The number of women known to engage in street prostitution fell from 20 to five, with the rotating circuit survivors gone and the remaining five being local women suffering from severe substance addictions.

More recently, smaller scale reverse stings have continued to be conducted. For example, in May 2016, four men were arrested for trying to patronize prostitutes in Wilkes-Barre Township, the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office announced. Investigators posted an advertisement on the internet over the Memorial Day holiday weekend and the four men contacted undercover officers to make arrangements for the exchange of sex for money. The defendants were identified in news releases. The arrests were the result of a joint investigation by the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office, Wilkes-Barre Township Police Department, Pennsylvania State Police and detectives from the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office.

In the third annual Report on Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Pennsylvania by Villanova University’s Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE Institute), it was reported that 10 people were arrested and charged with violations of the state’s sex buying statute (§ 5902(e)) between the time since the state criminal code created separate offenses for buying and selling sex in 2014 through 2017.

Key Partners

  • Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office
  • Wilkes-Barre Township Police Department
  • Reading Police Department
  • Harrisburg Police Department
  • Pennsylvania State Police
  • Monroe County District Attorney’s Office

Key Sources

Reverse Stings, Shaming:

Background on Local Prostitution and Sex Trafficking:

State Pennsylvania
Type County
Population 318449
Location
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