On August 12, 2019 the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office held a press conference to announce the recent conviction of Richard Collins for multiple counts of Trafficking in Individuals among other offenses. Collins was tried and convicted after a jury trial that concluded on August 9. Several survivors took the stand and provided testimony that proved essential to securing a finding of guilt.
According to SVU Detectives who spoke during the press conference, the Philadelphia Police Department Special Victims Unit first became aware of Collins’ trafficking scheme, which victimized at least five women, when a victim escaped Collins’ Kensington home where victims were held captive. She had to climb over trashcans and a barbed wire fence in order to flee. She reported to police who subsequently launched an investigation. A search warrant was issued for Collins’ home and Collins was subsequently arrested in June of last year.
To convict someone for Trafficking in Individuals under Pennsylvania law, the prosecuting authority must show that the perpetrator committed at least one of the acts under Section 3011 by and through the means of one of the factors listed in Section 3012(b) for the purpose of involuntary servitude. In cases where the victim is a minor, a showing of means is not necessary – only evidence of an act under Section 3011(b), for the purpose of involuntary servitude. (To learn more about Pennsylvania’s comprehensive anti-trafficking statute, check out our Training and Education Resources.)
According to prosecutors, Collins used controlled substances to coerce his victims into submission, preying upon existing addictions or possibly even causing an addiction. The use of narcotics to manipulate victims is common in sex trafficking, especially in Philadelphia – a national destination for heroin. Collins also used modified aspects of the property to prevent the victims from leaving. Namely, he removed a set of stairs in the back of the home, leaving a four-foot hole leading up to a door, and he would lock the front and back doors from the outside. Prosecutors were able to corroborate victim testimony with videos and other content retrieved from Collins’ cell phone which depicted sexual assaults and other criminal activity.
According to SVU Detectives, one victim reported being raped by 12-15 sex buyers a day. A member of the press inquired whether anyone in the community raised concerns about numerous men stopping by a single home every day. In response, Detective Kathryn Gordon said there had been no prior complaints, lamenting that many crimes in the city unfortunately go unreported. This is especially troubling considering the money Collins made by trafficking women was paid to him directly by countless unidentified men. These men routinely got away with a crime (either buying sex or Patronizing a Victim of Sexual Servitude – at a minimum). We believe that any response to human trafficking is incomplete without concerted efforts to target demand. Had anti-demand tactics been employed in this neighborhood, law enforcement may have recovered victims sooner. (To read more about anti-demand strategy, read our Nordic Model/anti-demand policy papers.)
The CSE Institute applauds these courageous survivors for coming forward and telling their stories to the jury. Without their testimony, Collins may have evaded a conviction. That is why it is so critical in every human trafficking prosecution that victims feel safe, supported, and believed. District Attorney Larry Krasner touched on this sentiment in his opening remarks. He emphasized that his office endeavors to combat stigma and empower survivors to speak up, stating “[victims] believe law enforcement will turn on them and prosecute them for possession of drugs or for sex work – well we won’t.”
Although we appreciate the spirit of DA Krasner’s message, we take issue with the use of the term “sex work.” First, “sex work” isn’t a crime in Pennsylvania – prostitution is. Second, “sex work” is a euphemism for commercial sexual exploitation (“CSE”) and sexual servitude. Reference to CSE as work suggests that sex traffickers are managers, sex buyers are consumers, and rape is an occupational hazard. Calling prostitution “sex work” erases the horrid reality of the majority of those victimized by the commercial sex industry.
A recent study by the Topos Foundation, Seen and Unseen, explored the “pro sex work” argument, as well as two other perspectives that are commonly used to discuss the sex trade in America. They found that the pro “sex work” or “choice” argument was frequently cited by research participants as a reason why women enter the commercial sex – alongside an in association with a financial need. Their research found that what is seen and considered in this argument are ideas of empowerment and ideals of consent. However, what is unseen and suppressed are the harms, risks, and – most importantly – the voices of survivors themselves. We encourage DA Krasner to re-consider his use of the term in his ongoing efforts to improve the justice system’s response to commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking in Philadelphia.
Collins has a prior criminal history for several misdemeanors including simple assault, false identification to law enforcement, and knowing and intentional possession of a controlled substance. Collins is scheduled to be sentenced on October 18, 2019.
All viewed expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.