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Criminalizing HIV

October 7, 2022

The Center for HIV Law & Policy’s map of HIV criminalization in the U.S. is bleak. As of June 2022, thirty states have HIV-specific criminal laws and/or sentencing enhancements applicable to people living with HIV (PLHIV). Across the country, people face a range of unconscionable punishments. In Utah, PLHIV may face felony charges for exposing others to bodily fluids (e.g., spitting, biting, blood). In Mississippi, it’s a felony for a PLHIV to knowingly expose another person. In Pennsylvania, it’s a felony for PLHIV to engage in or solicit sex work. In Ohio, people convicted under the HIV-specific felonious assault law are required to register as sex offenders.

We know that criminalization doesn’t serve public health. Experts warn that HIV criminalization statutes discourage testing—the logic goes, if you don’t know your HIV status, you can’t “knowingly” expose others, which is a mens rea requirement in certain statutes. Disincentivizing testing is contrary to public health by also hampering efforts to understand the HIV epidemic’s true scope.

Most laws also fundamentally misunderstand the science behind HIV: they fail to account for PrEP medications, they largely fail to recognize that PLHIV can’t transmit HIV if their viral load is low enough to be considered undetectable. And all the laws certainly misunderstand that living with HIV is not a crime; someone shouldn’t be prosecuted or punished for their health.

We at the Woodhull Freedom Foundation join in solidarity with PLHIV and other advocates urging states to repeal HIV criminal laws.

A fence with razor wire in front of a cement building with thin tall windows. It appears to be a jail. (Mark Ralston/AFP)

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