Can the IRS take down pimps and human traffickers the way it took down Al Capone? Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley hopes so, and has proposed legislation to help the IRS bust sex workers for tax evasion. Currently, the IRS rarely targets pimps for audits because of the lengthy process required to estimate their income and the amount they owe in taxes. Grassley's proposal would give the IRS $2 million to create a dedicated office within its criminal investigation unit and increase fines and prison sentences for pimps who fail to file W-2s for their workers. The legislation, which is one of many proposed modifications to the big, unsexy tax bill that is the Taxpayer Protection and Assistance Act of 2005, got the nod from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
News agencies injected a little (unintentional?) levity into the proceedings as they struggled to package the story. CNN called Grassley's proposal a "tax on pimps, prostitutes" (when Grassley isn't actually proposing an additional sex-worker tax, just that they report income like everybody else), while NPR's Marketplace played a few obligatory bars of "It's Hard out Here for a Pimp" and awkwardly riffed, "Al Capone, meet Huggy Bear." Meanwhile, Wonkette brought the levity intentionally with the Onion-esque headline "Relative Difficulty of Pimping out Here Increases Yet Again."
To his credit, Grassley is speaking out principally against pimps and not the sex workers themselves; the legislation proposes no penalties for prostitutes and modifies the IRS's whistleblower program so that sex workers can participate. A press release from Grassley's office emphasizes the human-trafficking angle, noting that "the majority of the victims of human trafficking -- those who are often smuggled in from other counties [sic] and virtually imprisoned in a house set up for prostitution -- are girls ages 13 to 17." However you feel about sex work, it's hard to argue against regulating pimps and preventing women and girls from being forced into prostitution. Professor and human-trafficking researcher Donna Hughes told Marketplace that Grassley's proposal is needed because "victims become traumatically bonded to perpetrators, and that makes it very difficult to get teenage prostitutes to testify against traffickers."
Still, the legislation has its detractors, who worry that prostitutes themselves might be targeted. Children of the Night founder Lois Lee told Marketplace, "If in fact the legislature determines that [a sex worker] is an employee, she too could have tax laws enforced against her and go to prison. So we really need to be thoughtful."
Will Grassley's legislation wind up being used to target the very workers it proposes to protect? It's a depressing, but not unfathomable, prospect. I'm going to call my nearest Senate Democrat to request that she ask about the implementation of Grassley's plan when the act reaches the full Senate.