President’s AIDS council calls on feds to help states repeal HIV-criminalization laws
The Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) passed a resolution last week that calls for an end to federal and state HIV-specific criminal laws and prosecutions.
While the resolution is only advisory, it recommends that the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services issue guidance and offer incentives to state attorneys general and state health departments to eliminate HIV-specific laws. The advisory group also asks these federal agencies to develop guidelines for how to approach HIV within criminal and civil justice systems that are “consistent with the treatment of similar health and safety risks.”
As the resolution notes, 32 states and two territories have laws criminalizing people living with HIV.
In explaining the reason to repeal these laws, the resolution reads:
People living with HIV have been charged under aggravated assault, attempted murder, and even bioterrorism statutes, and they face more severe penalties because law enforcement, prosecutors, courts, and legislators continue to view and characterize people living with HIV and their bodily fluids as inherently dangerous, even as ‘deadly weapons. Punishments imposed for non-disclosure of HIV status, exposure, or HIV transmission are grossly out of proportion to the actual harm inflicted and reinforce the fear and stigma associated with HIV. Public health leaders and global policy makers agree that HIV criminalization is unjust, bad public health policy and is fueling the epidemic rather than reducing it.
PACHA is also requesting that state and federal authorities review the cases of persons convicted under such laws and overturn convictions if deemed appropriate. The group is calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to “issue a clear statement addressing the growing evidence that HIV criminalization and punishments are counterproductive and undermine current HIV testing and prevention priorities.”
“Today’s announcement is an important advancement in our collective effort to modernize unjust and discriminatory HIV criminalization laws,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus in a statement last week. Lee introduced the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act in 2011, which never passed, and served on the United Nations’ Global Commission on HIV and the Law.
“I join the President’s Advisory Council on AIDS in calling on the Department of Justice and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention to issue clear guidance to states and public health departments on the counterproductive effects of HIV criminalization policies; we must end this clear discrimination against people living with HIV,” Lee continued. “Criminalization laws breed fear, discrimination, distrust and hatred, and we must end them.”
The White House declined to comment on the resolution, but the National HIV/AIDS Strategy adopted by the Obama administration in July 2010 does call for state legislatures to “consider reviewing HIV-specific criminal statutes to ensure that they are consistent with current knowledge of HIV transmission and support public health approaches to preventing and treating HIV.”
Policymakers at the state level also welcomed the resolution. Randy Mayer, chief of the Bureau of HIV, STD, and Hepatitis for the Iowa Department of Public Health, said the resolution was a new tool in advocates’ fight to repeal Iowa’s HIV-specific law.
“This resolution came at an excellent time for Iowa,” Mayer said in an email to The American Independent.
State activists and public health officials, including Mayer, have laid out a strategy to repeal the state’s law.
“The advocates in Iowa have also aligned their efforts with a public health perspective, so the resolution was a reinforcement of their justification,” Mayer said. “I think the more public health entities that weigh in on this discussion the better.”
But while policymakers praise the resolution, activists urge cautious optimism.
Sean Strub, executive director of the anti-HIV-criminalization organization Sero Project, said the resolution was appreciated, but the “real test will be in whether federal agencies and the administration responds with the necessary urgency.”
Catherine Hanssens, executive director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy, which runs the Positive Justice Project, echoed Strub’s sentiment, noting that while the resolution is important, PACHA “has no power to order anyone to do anything.”
“[HHS] Secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius and President Obama both have the discretion to ignore the resolution’s recommendations.”
Regardless, Hanssens said the resolution is an important milestone in the battle to repeal HIV criminal laws in the U.S.
“The work of advocates who pushed for passage of the resolution is not over,” she said. “But we have passed a major marker on the road to reform, and justice, for many people and communities affected by HIV.”
PACHA is also requesting that state and federal authorities review the cases of persons convicted under such laws and overturn convictions if deemed appropriate. The group is calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to..well said here!
This is a most wonderful step in the beginning of healing for our community, for me and it is liken to many other miss-carriages of justice, where the miss-spent energy in putting a human being in jail weather it is cause by a drug illness or a sexual addiction illness before exhausting all the other options in an non judgment venue like metal heath treatment and/or a relationship with a chaplain or elder in one’s community. I do hope that we evolve as a civil society to break the chains of returning pain for pain to call it justice in my life time, with hope to help bring our communities together in a vision to heal rather than our current system of punishment without human compassionate care and the opportunity for one to heal and turn around from past action. In my Faith all have fallen short of being a perfect citizen, but not all go to a concert prison.
Jeremy, are you now disclosing your HIV status to every single sexual partner you have an encounter with or do you see this situation from a slightly different perspective now that you are on the other side of the fence? True, nobody wants to get infected with HIV, but does the act of passing the disease really warrant a conviction of attempted murder as some states are now doing?
These laws are in place for a reason, I’m outraged at the thought of banishing these laws. I myself am a victim of someone who refuses to disclose their HIV status and as a direct result of this I am now also faced to live the rest if my life battling HIV. In my opinion the laws (at least in Ohio) aren’t struck enough. I have been fighting for nearly two years to get the justice system to do something about the person who carelessly has not only infected myself but several others because of their dishonesty. Without these laws and consequences the instances of people not disclosing their status in situations where that knowledge is vital will only continue to rise.
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