On April 12, 2021, Robert Lee Johnson was sentenced to 33 years in federal prison for running a prostitution ring in which he used violence and drugs to force victims to comply with his demands. Johnson, a 55 year old man from York County, received this sentence in federal court following a guilty plea to sex trafficking using “force, fraud, and coercion” in June of last year. His sentence was given by U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer Wilson.
Johnson was charged in November of 2018 after recruiting and forcing victims to perform sex acts for money from November of 2015 to August of 2016. Acting United States Attorney in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Bruce Brandler commented on the case saying that Johnson was forcing his victims to work on an “all in basis,” meaning, these victims had to perform sex acts in order to “pay” Johnson back for basic living expenses and supplies. Not only did he use food and clothing in his coercion, but also supplied his victims with heroin, controlling access to the heroin when his victims were not giving him enough money. He also forced his victims to watch him beat other victims to ensure that he would retain power and control.
The Federal sex trafficking statutes requires that there be an element of force, fraud, or coercion involved in the offense. In this case, Johnson’s facilitation and control over controlled substances is a manner of coercion that is less recognized. Though many states have recognized that interference with a chemical dependency constitutes coercion, in federal law, this falls under a “scheme, plan, or pattern” to cause serious harm or physical restraint. Johnson’s other actions, such as physical violence, also meets the requirements of the statute under the force element. We know that traffickers often maintain control over their victims by taking advantage of a victim’s unique vulnerabilities, such as financial insecurity, lack of food or shelter and drug addiction. The CSE Institute agrees with this use of the coercion element of the statute because chemical dependencies play a large role in the world of human trafficking.
The CSE Institute commends the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s office, and the Honorable Judge Wilson for their efforts to investigate, prosecute, and sentence traffickers, rather than criminalizing those that they victimize. The CSE Institute continues to advocate for the Equality Model, which criminalizes those who buy sex, and decriminalizes those who sell it.