Earlier this month, legislation in California was passed to update its HIV criminalization laws. Since the earliest days of the epidemic, more than 33 states have passed some version of legislation criminalizing the lives of people living with HIV (PLWHIV).
In many states, these laws carried felony offenses with high fines and even decades of incarceration. Having a felony can render you ineligible for many safety net programs, like housing, food security and even voting. When the Ryan White CARE Act (federal resources providing medical care for PLWHIV) was passed in the early ’90s, criminalization laws were written in as a requirement to receive these resources. At the most basic level, legislators, community members, nay-sayers and even other PLWHIV believed this would decrease new infections and keep this sexual virus at bay.
Two decades later, we now see the many negative ramifications of what these laws have caused. This includes disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino men, women and trans-identified people living with HIV being imprisoned, fined in civilian courts, not eligible for SNAP or to vote and even the worst cases placed at risk of heightened levels of violence or killed.
As a PLWHIV, these laws have hovered over me as I established new relationships and even as a deterrent of going to medical school when I first learned of my HIV status in June 2008. I was fearful of passing the virus in a needle stick or something far-fetched at the time.
Sitting here in October 2017, as a PLWHIV who is undetectable or routinely taking my HIV medication to prevent the transmission of HIV to others, I am happy to see three states begin to right the wrongs. Those states include Iowa, Colorado and now California.
Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown lowered from a felony to a misdemeanor the act of knowingly exposing people to an HIV-transmission risk (e.g. PLWHIV giving blood without telling the blood bank they are living with HIV). Till Friday, HIV was the only communicable disease carrying a felony offense in California.
Changes like this are needed as we think of new ways of counteracting new infections. New biomedical research is continuing to show us, if we get PLWHIV in culturally-competent medical care and prescribed HIV medications, we can substantially decrease transmission. We must pair these approaches with increased free HIV testing everywhere and outside of 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. or 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. in underserved communities. Creating better policy ultimately allows people to be better. And we have to be in the business of improving all communities.
What can you do? Learn more information on why criminalization is not helpful at preventing infection by visiting CDC.gov/HIV and community organizations like Seroproject.org. Request information from your public health departments and our community partners to have more services providing free HVI testing and linkages to medical care.
Lastly, become an advocate and let everyone know HIV is not a crime.
Daniel D. Driffin is co-founder of Atlanta-based HIV/AIDS nonprofit THRIVE SS. Have something to say on an issue? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to talk about writing a guest editorial for Georgia Voice.