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On Friday, Oct. 6, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 239 (SB 239), a California HIV criminalization bill which reduces the charge of knowingly exposing someone to HIV from a felony to a misdemeanor. The bill was passed by the California legislature on Sept. 11, 2017, and will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2018.
According to CNN, the state’s former HIV criminalization laws previously punished positive people for “knowingly exposing or infecting others with HIV” with up to eight years in prison; the new law reduces jail time to a maximum of six months.
A short history of California HIV criminalization
Various states around the United States began passing HIV criminalization laws during the epidemic of the late 1980s amid widespread fear and ignorance. At the time there were no effective treatments for HIV, and people living with it experienced even more discrimination and hostility then they do today.
Since no federal law existed to protect HIV-positive people from housing and employment discrimination — at least not until the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 — people living with HIV faced rejection from jobs, schools and neighborhoods just for having a virus.
HIV criminalization laws quickly proved problematic. Predominantly men of color were charged for having consensual sex whether or not a condom was used and whether or not their sexual partner actually contracted HIV.
About 24 states still have laws that punish people for failing to disclose their HIV-positive status, creating a legal incentive for people not to know their status. These laws also contribute to a continued atmosphere of HIV-phobic stigma that treats poz people like sex criminals and public health hazards.
For the past 20 years, people living with HIV have been able to take medications to become undetectable, effectively reducing the amount of HIV in their blood to levels so low that the virus can’t be detected by a test, making it virtually impossible to transmit the virus.
The California HIV criminalization change is a step in the right direction, but…
Regarding the new California HIV criminalization law, Rick Zbur, the executive director of state LGBTQ organization Equality California, said:
With his signature, Governor Brown has moved California’s archaic HIV laws out of the 1980s and into the 21st century. SB 239 will do much to reduce stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV — it is not only fair, but it’s good public health. When people are no longer penalized for knowing their status, it encourages them to come forward, get tested and get treatment. That’s good for all Californians.
While Zbur is right about the law reducing stigma and discrimination, it is our belief that HIV criminalization laws need to be repealed outright. If someone ever deliberately and maliciously exposes another person to HIV (something that rarely happens), that individual can be prosecuted under other, currently existing laws.
Featured image by DragonImages via iStock