Wilkes Barre is a small city in central Pennsylvania that was a stop 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) and upstate New York (Schenectady, Albany, Buffalo). Like in most cities, there is also a long history of local street prostitution in Wilkes-Barre.
An effort to aggressively tackle consumer-level demand in the 1980s and early 1990s (described below) appeared to be highly successful, and essentially depressed the market for purchased sex to the point that the city was taken off the trafficking circuit. There is evidence of some level or prostitution and sex trafficking still occurring in the city, such as a case in December 2013 in which 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 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.
Reverse Stings and Shaming
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. The arrested men could also be ordered not to enter areas of the city known for street prostitution. 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. Since most police departments hold data no longer than seven years, we cannot verify all aspects of the account of what happened in the city in response to the effort to combat demand. The existence of the domestic trafficking circuit and the level of police reverse sting activity in the 1980s and 1990s were corroborated by news archives and interviews with police from other cities on the circuit.
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. 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.
Collaboration with Other Agencies
Many police departments, particularly smaller ones, have had trouble staffing reverse stings due to a shortage of women police officers who can serve as decoys, or because the decoys become too well-known to potential buyers to be effective. A solution to this problem used by some police agencies is to borrow staff from other departments. Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania and communities such as Reading and Allentown have exchanged staff, and the Pennsylvania State Police has developed the capacity to assist communities throughout the state in conducting reverse stings.
- Wilkes-Barre Police Department
- Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office
- Reading Police Department
- Harrisburg Police Department
- Monroe County District Attorney’s Office
- Pennsylvania State Police
National Assessment Interviews with Chief of Police
Reverse Stings, Shaming:
- “30 Prostitution Arrests Made in Wilkes-Barre: Police”, The Morning Call, June 13 1988.
- “McGroarty Tells ‘Johns’ to Stay Out of City in a Letter to Out-of-Town Newspapers”, The Times Leader, May 14 1994.
- “‘John’ Sting Shows Need for Loitering Law, Officials Say”, The Times Leader, August 8 1994.
- “Alleged ‘Johns’ Caught in the Act; Policewoman Poses as Prostitute in a Sting that Nets 10”, The Times Leader, June 16 1996.
- “Chamber Volunteer Arrested in W-B Prostitution Sting”, The Times Leader, May 14 1998.
- “‘John’ Sting Nets World-Class Wheelchair Racer”, The Times Leader, May 21 1999.
- “Eight Men Accused of Soliciting Prostitutes in Wilkes-Barre”, The Scranton Times-Tribune, April 19 2009.
- https://www.standardspeaker.com/news/17-people-arrested-on-prostitution-related-charges (2017)
- https://www.timesleader.com/news/local/549998/four-men-charged-in-connection-with-human-trafficking (2016)
- https://www.pahomepage.com/news/arrests-made-in-on-line-sting (2016)
- http://wkok.com/selinsgrove-man-arrested-as-part-of-a-prostitution-sting/ (2016)
- https://wnep.com/2016/06/03/four-men-facing-prostitution-charges-in-luzerne-county/ (2016)
Background on Local Prostitution and Sex Trafficking:
- “The Scandal of Human Trafficking Rocked Back Mountain in 1926”, The Citizen’s Voice, June 10 2009.
- “W-B Man Pleads Guilty to Sex Trafficking”, Wilkes Barre Citizens’ Voice, June 27 2014.
- “Federal Grand Jury Indicts Two Scranton Men on Child Sex Trafficking Charges,” Scranton Times-Tribune, May 12 2015.
- https://www.justice.gov/usao-mdpa/pr/luzerne-county-woman-sentenced-prison-transporting-person-interstate-commerce-engage (2014)
- https://www.timesleader.com/news/261651/wilkes-barre-police-arrest-three-women-in-prostitution-sweep (2015)
- https://www.citizensvoice.com/news/three-women-nabbed-in-prostitution-sting-in-wilkes-barre-1.1901269 (2015)
- https://wnep.com/2016/09/02/workers-at-spa-in-luzerne-county-busted-for-prostitution/ (2016)
- http://www.wfmz.com/news/poconos-coal/prostitution-sting-nets-two-luzerne-county-women-in-stroudsburg/ (2016)
- https://www.pennlive.com/daily-buzz/2017/01/pa_spa_was_really_a_brothel_co.html (2017)
- https://www.thetimes-tribune.com/news/women-admit-to-running-prostitution-business-at-luzerne-county-massage-parlor (2017)
- https://cseinstitute.org/Report on Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Pennsylvania (2018)