On March 21, 43-year-old Steven C. Morrison of Leesport, Pennsylvania was sentenced to four to eight years in state prison, followed by two years of probation, for his role in sexually exploiting a woman he met on the streets of Reading, Pennsylvania. Several months prior, on February 5, a jury found Morrison guilty of four felony counts of promoting prostitution (a third-degree felony) and one count of possession of a controlled substance (a misdemeanor). Morrison was on trial for his heinous actions that occurred in June and early July of 2017, when he forced his victim to prostitute for 10 days, collected the money she made, and provided her with “nothing but food and probably a disgusting place to live.” During sentencing, Judge Patrick T. Barrett said he “couldn’t describe the conduct as anything but despicable.”
According to trial testimony reported by the Reading Eagle, Morrison met the woman on Penn Street in Reading, Pennsylvania back in June 2017, and asked her if she was looking for drugs and if she had heard of Backpage.com, a former website notorious for sex trafficking and prostitution-related activity. Morrison took the woman back to a house with another girl and provided her with clothing and lingerie to wear in photos that he used to create online advertisements. He also provided her with a room and a phone that she used to set up dates with sex buyers. The woman testified that she had to run all of her potential “dates” by Morrison, as well as the price of sex acts. Morrison, who was supposed to give a portion of the profits back to her, instead kept all the money earned and facilitated the woman’s access to controlled substances. Over the course of 10 days, the woman had between 40 and 50 sex buyers all while under Morrison’s control, earning him thousands of dollars while he kept her in a vulnerable and toxic drug-induced state.
The woman’s victimization was discovered when detectives from several local police departments and agents from Homeland Security conducted an investigation at a Wyomissing hotel. District Attorney John T. Adams confirmed the raid was part of a federal investigation involving human trafficking and drugs. A detective found the woman’s online advertisement and exchanged messages to set up a date. Authorities who were surveilling during the investigation saw Morrison drop the woman off at the hotel, followed the vehicle, and conducted a search while officers interviewed the woman in the hotel room.
During the sentencing, the Reading Eagle reported that Morrison’s defense attorney argued that the woman played “a very active and assertive role” in designing the online advertisements and setting up meeting with sex buyers. He said she was a “hardened drug user and convicted criminal, not a naïve teenager.” Judge Barret acknowledged the woman was complicit to an extent but said to Morrison, “I’m here to sentence you for what you did, not for what she did.” Judge Barrett chose to follow the sentencing recommendation issued by Assistant District Attorney Karissa Rodriguez. Morrison was on state parole when he committed the offenses and received credit for 347 days time served.
The CSE Institute applauds the anti-trafficking efforts carried out by multiple branches of law enforcement in this case. The entire operation, from interviewing the trafficking victim to the subsequent arrest of the trafficker, centered on targeting Morrison’s criminal behavior as opposed to the woman who was being sold for sex. The CSE Institute encourages this approach and advocates for the adoption of the Nordic Model, which penalizes those who buy and sell persons for sex instead of punishing vulnerable and exploited women like the one in this case, who was clearly not only an addict, but also a homeless person.
Furthermore, the CSE Institute is pleased that law enforcement’s dedication to finding justice for the woman in this case extended beyond Morrison’s investigation and arrest and continued into the adjudication stage. Typically, prostituted persons are arrested at a much higher rate than those who buy sex or sell people for sex. It is refreshing that Morrison was arrested and prosecuted for his crimes, found guilty by jury of his peers, and ultimately sentenced to serve time for his crimes against the woman he prostituted and abused with controlled substances. In fact, in a case like this with facts that indicate trafficking, we encourage prosecutors to use the Commonwealth’s human trafficking statute. Morrison, by both facilitating and controlling the woman’s access to controlled substances, knowingly subjected her to sexual servitude. The CSE Institute both reminds and urges law enforcement to utilize Pennsylvania’s human trafficking statutewhen appropriate, such as cases like this one.
Still, the CSE Institute is concerned by the victim-blaming sentiments shared by both the judge and the defense attorney during Morrison’s sentencing hearing. It is important to understand that traffickers prey on and manipulate desperate and vulnerable women. According to Polaris, traffickers recruit and exploit victims by using threats, lies or psychological coercion. In other cases, they may kidnap victims, engage in physical violence, or use substance abuse to control them. Victims of trafficking frequently fall into “the life” because they are runaway or homeless persons, have mental health issues, have substance abuse problems, struggle with past abuse or trauma, or do not have access to basic necessities, such as money, food, or shelter because of socioeconomic hardship. These reasons are often the motivations behind selling sex, if not to avoid violence or certain death at the hands of their trafficker.
In this case, Morrison approached a woman on the streets who he knew was homeless and had a substance use disorder. This is the classic kind of predatory behavior traffickers use to lure women into sex trafficking. Therefore, it is our position that the judge and defense attorney in this case engaged in victim blaming by insinuating that the woman Morrison preyed upon— whose vulnerabilities were exploited—was in any way responsible for the abhorrent and despicable acts of Morrison. It is important to note that victims of trafficking do not “choose” the circumstances in which they are abused; instead they are frequently subjected to fraud, coercion, and compulsion. Victim blaming trafficking survivors also “reinforces to victims what the abuser has done and makes the victim feel like it’s his or her fault.” This is harmful because victims are often brainwashed or physically abused into believing they were doing what their trafficker wanted to for a purpose, if not for their own survival. The CSE again emphasizes that prostituted persons are victims of commercial sexual exploitation who are best served through interventions with social services or exit strategies, rather than criminal punishment, judicial admonishment, or victim blaming of any kind.
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or Villanova University.