HIV Criminalization Laws Are Not Based On Facts

This blog post coauthored by Alex Sheldon, Research Analyst at the Movement Advancement Project.

Yesterday we commemorated World AIDS Day, a day to raise awareness, remember those we have lost to HIV-related illnesses, and stand in solidarity with the millions of people living with HIV.

Since the start of the epidemic, an estimated 78 million people have acquired HIV and 35 million people have died of HIV-related illnesses. We have made significant progress in the fight against HIV at home and abroad through the empowerment of people living with HIV, advances in science, worldwide education, and increased access to treatment. In the decades since the first HIV diagnoses, more is known about HIV, how it is transmitted (and isn't), and what works to prevent transmission. Advocates and researchers have dispelled myths about behaviors with negligible risks and designed educational campaigns to fight misinformation and decrease stigma. Individuals, communities, and nations have created systems to increase access to healthcare, and for the 18 million people worldwide with access to life-saving HIV treatment, HIV is no longer a death sentence.

Unfortunately, progress in our understanding and treatment of HIV has not been met with progress in policies in the United States. In 38 states across the country, there remain problematic statutes and policies that carry penalties such as 35-year prison terms and required sex offender registration for behaviors now proven to have no risk of transmitting HIV (such as spitting and biting). Known as "HIV criminalization laws," these state policies are vestiges of fear that rely on misinformation about HIV transmission and undermine public health goals. These laws also ignore modern prevention methods (which can lower transmission risk to almost zero), they ignore modern medical treatment, and unlike other criminal laws, they don't take into account whether someone intended to cause harm.

The Movement Advancement Project's newly released report, LGBT Spotlight Report: HIV Criminalization Laws, examines the problematic basis for these laws, their detriment to public health and the justice system, and the disproportionate impact these laws have on LGBT people.

Few HIV criminalization laws take into consideration the science -- what we know about the risk, likelihood, and modes of transmission of HIV -- and the consequences are devastating. While the stated goal of these laws was to prevent HIV transmission, emerging research suggests these laws may result in the opposite effect, discouraging HIV testing and disclosure of HIV status. People living with HIV are put at increased risk of being charged with a crime. Some individuals have been sentenced to more than 30 years in prison when transmission did not occur. Others have been convicted even when they took steps to protect their sexual partners and the risk of transmission was negligible. In California alone, between 1988 and 2014, more than 380 people were convicted under that state's HIV-specific criminal statutes.

Take the story of Robert Suttle. After graduating from Louisiana State University -Shreveport, Suttle successfully worked for Louisiana's Second Circuit Court of Appeal as an assistant clerk. However, after a contentious romantic relationship ended, Suttle's former partner filed criminal charges against Suttle for allegedly not having disclosed his HIV status when they first met. Due to effective transmission prevention measures taken by Suttle, it was never determined whether his partner had contracted HIV and Suttle was not accused of transmitting HIV nor of lying about his HIV status. However, he was prosecuted under a Louisiana law that effectively requires people with HIV to disclose that status prior to having sexual contact, regardless of whether they engage in activity that has a risk of HIV transmission.

Rather than face a possible a 10-year prison sentence, Suttle accepted a plea bargain and served six months in prison. He is required to register as a sex offender through 2024, and the words "sex offender" are printed in red capital letters underneath his picture on his driver's license.

Ultimately, the bottom line is this: HIV criminalization laws are not based on facts. They ignore modern prevention methods, they overlook modern medical treatment, and they criminalize behaviors with 0% risk of HIV transmission. They also have devastating effects on people's lives.