No longer criminal: US House accepts reform on HIV criminalization

The House Appropriations Committee has passed an amendment to require the Attorney General to review laws, policies, and regulations regarding criminal cases involving people living with HIV/AIDS. The amendment, introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee of California, will be added to the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2014.

“HIV Criminalization laws breed, discrimination, distrust, and hatred. These laws are based on fear, not science. This is an important first step in ensuring that our laws reflect current scientific understandings of HIV,” said Congresswoman Lee in a statement.

The amendment specifically references the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) resolution, issued in February 2013, demanding an end to criminalization and prosecutions for people living with HIV.

After the bill is passed, the U.S. Attorney General will initiate a review of Federal and State laws, policies, and regulations regarding criminal and related civil commitment cases involving people living with HIV/AIDS. The Attorney General, will then make best practice recommendations that reflect current science and understanding of HIV transmission routes and associated benefits of treatment, and ensure such policies do not place unique or additional burdens on individuals living with HIV.

“We commend the House Appropriations Committee for this important step towards improved public health. Criminal statutes should reflect the best available science and not facilitate or perpetuate discrimination against people with HIV,” said Robert Suttle, assistant director of the Sero Project and a survivor of an HIV criminalization prosecution in Louisiana.

The Sero Project has been advocating a change in laws and policies related to HIV status. In October, five HIV criminalization survivors, and the mother and sister of a sixth testified before PACHA about their experiences facing inappropriate and severe HIV criminalization prosecutions. Most of these prosecutions occurred under HIV-specific criminal statutes that are based on outdated and erroneous beliefs about the routes, risks, and consequences of HIV transmission. The PACHA resolution calling for decriminalization was based largely on this testimony. 

The Sero Project recently released a report detailing how fear of HIV criminalization disproportionally affects the transgender population. Mistrust of the criminal justice system and a lack of understanding of what information could get them arrested was leading many transgender people to avoid testing for HIV. By removing the stigma of criminalization, hopefully more people can be tested and treated to reduce HIV infections.