In a recent story out of Richmond, a woman – Barbara Tanner, a 52 year old – who operated an escort service was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison. The interesting hook, noted by Doug Berman, is that the court treated each of the women who worked for her as a “victim” for sentencing purposes. This hoisted her sentencing guideline range from 24-30 months to 41-51 months. As a matter of guideline interpretation, perhaps this makes sense. Section 2G1.1 defines a victim as:
a person transported, persuaded, induced, enticed, or coerced to engage in, or travel for the purpose of engaging in, a commercial sex act or prohibited sexual conduct, whether or not the person consented to the commercial sex act or prohibited sexual conduct. Accordingly, “victim” may include an undercover law enforcement officer.
Perhaps this is just a matter of nomenclature, but is this a fair definition of “victim”? While some sex workers are surely victims, others have chosen this work – admittedly under many of the stresses that propel other individuals towards sub-optimal life choices. Is a sex worker necessarily any greater victim than a coal miner or a worker in a meat processing plant? Would a sex worker who was working on her own, rather than for a madame, be able to claim victimhood as well? If not, why is he or she converted to victim status upon taking a position with Ms. Tanner’s agency? (And what would the IUSW – International Union of Sex Workers – say about this?)
The guidelines commission is within bounds when it makes Ms. Tanner’s sentence depend on the size of her operation. But does it make sense to frame the sentence on the number of people “victimized”? To the degree that those who promote commercial prostitution create unwilling sex workers, they are doing serious harm. And maybe we consider larger prostitution schemes more dangerous because they have the potential to increase coerced prostitution. But my sense is that, with such a broad definition of “victim”, the sentencing commission is mostly dressing up morality legislation in public safety clothing.
If you want to send Ms. Tanner to the pokey for sin, go for it, but don’t assume that all of her employees were necessarily victims. Maybe they were just sinners as well.