America needs to stop criminalizing its citizens. A good place to start would be HIV/AIDS. This month Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced legislation aimed at ending the stigma, discrimination and stereotypes that negatively impact Americans living with HIV/AIDS. The Repeal Existing Policies that Encourage and Allow Legal (REPEAL) HIV Discrimination Act would require an interagency review of federal and state laws that criminalizes certain actions by people living with HIV. That's a fairly good start at reviewing and overturning discrimination in the courts. Maybe even reducing obtuse sentencing already on the books. Whatever the outcome, this bill must pass.
A person diagnosed with a chronic, treatable medical condition should not be ruled by a different set of criminal laws. That is occurring today, as people who carry HIV are subject to criminal conviction, while people who transmit hep C, HPV, syphilis, gonorrhea and herpes are not. A disturbing trend occurs when state and local criminal laws are not rooted in medical science. These laws are widely interpreted, misused and abused.
Another very important reason to do away with HIV laws, criminalization runs counter to effective public health policy and prevention strategy. Criminalization discourages HIV testing, and legitimizes HIV/AIDS discrimination among the entire population. Everyone is affected when the people most at risk refuse to get tested for fear they will be sent to prison, and worse, placed on a list of sexual offenders for life. These are the consequence now imposed on HIV positive people. When it is not possible to prove consensual sex, and science is not consulted, discrimination in the courts flourishes. And the more motivated the judge, the more ruthless the sentence.
Thirty-two states have criminal statutes based on perceived exposure to HIV. Regardless of the actual risk of transmission thirteen states have laws that criminalize certain acts, spitting is an example, by people with HIV/AIDS, even though it is impossible to transmit HIV through saliva. Aside from being charged under HIV specific criminalization statutes, people living with HIV has also been charged under aggravated assault, attempted murder, and bioterrorism.
The REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act is simple, cost effective legislation that saves taxpayer's money by ensuring criminal laws relating to HIV exposure is based on accurate science. There is irrefutable proof that existing HIV related criminal laws do not reflect current scientific facts about HIV transmission. That is why we must support H.R. 1843. We can all agree something is terribly wrong when individuals serve less time for vehicular manslaughter and rape convictions than for consensual sex while HIV positive.
HIV laws are outdated. They emerged under Bill Clinton. A Republican Congress tagged the first "Intent to Transmit" laws on to the Ryan White Act in the early 1990's. But the laws have not kept up. Instead, these laws are deeply rooted in stigma. Financial resources used to fight them can be put to better use with the simple passing of this bill. More than 150 progressive organizations have endorsed the legislation. H.R. 1843 has 34 cosponsors, and it was introduced in the House of Representatives last May by U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). It also has bipartisan support.
A fact sheet can be found at the Center for HIV Law and Policy's website. I encourage you to take action now. Sign up as an endorser if you agree with me. And a letter to your congressperson never hurt either. Just start talking about it, because an end to HIV criminalization must gain momentum, and H.R. 1843 is our best chance yet.