HIV Criminalization in the United States

Since the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the early 80s, public health officials and lawmakers have proposed legislative approaches to prevent HIV transmission at both the national and state level. lawmakers have tried to address this issue using punitive measures by enacting laws that criminalize high-risk behaviors linked to negligent HIV exposure. Twenty-five states criminalize behaviors that increases the risk for HIV exposure; and some states include low-risk behaviors like oral sex. Most of these laws were enacted before the emergence of antiretroviral therapy, and the laws do not account for other preventative measures such as condom use and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PreP).

States also criminalize intentional STD exposure, but typically result in short sentences (rarely exceed thirty-four months). Similarly, all states have assault and battery laws and other criminal statutes that can be used to prosecute high-risk behaviors that can lead to negligent HIV exposure. Despite its intention, state laws further sanction and stigmatize those with HIV. In addition to criminalizing certain behaviors, state law also determines the maximum sentences for violating HIV-specific statutes. The CDC reports that eight states issue sentences for HIV-specific violations between eleven and twenty years in prison; while two states impose longer sentences (greater than twenty years), and two may impose up to life in prison.

LGBTQ advocates outline how many of these laws were rooted in homophobia but gained traction by claiming to promote public health. Not only do they have a disproportionate effect on LGBTQ individuals, but these laws have a disparate impact on women and people of color. Aware of this discriminatory effect, the California legislature introduced Senate Bill 239 in February 2017. This bill reduces HIV transmission from felony to misdemeanor and repeals mandated criminal penalties for donating blood, organ, and breast milk while being HIV-positive. Unfortunately, not many states have followed suit.

Experts in AIDS research have long resisted these laws, claiming that they are ineffective and unwarranted. Linda-Fail Bekker, a professor of medicine at the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation says, “in many cases, these misconceived laws exacerbate the spread of HIV by driving people living with, and at risk of, infection away from treatment services.” The science of dispelling HIV stigma is insufficient to end HIV criminalization. Lawmakers must consider the overarching human rights principles and advance public health efforts and education to adequately address the criminalization of HIV in the US.