Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) has introduced an unprecedented piece of legislation that could put an end to laws that impose cruel and unfair penalties on HIV-positive people in the U.S.
The bill, called the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act, calls for a review of all federal and state laws, policies, and regulations regarding the criminal prosecution of individuals for HIV-related offenses. It then creates incentives for governments to reform existing policies that use the law to target HIV-positive people.
Introduced on September 23rd, the legislation "relies on science and public health, rather than punishment, as the lead response to HIV exposure and transmission incidents," said Catherine Hanssens, executive director of the New York-based Center for HIV Law and Policy.
"It embodies the courage and leadership needed to replace expensive, pointless and punitive reactions to the complex challenge of HIV with approaches that can truly reduce transmission and stigma."
Thirty-four states and two U.S. territories have criminal statutes that punish people for exposing a person to HIV or transmitting it. Punishments range from a fine to up to 30 years in prison, according to the Center for HIV Law and Policy. In some states, exposure or transmission is a felony, and convicted individuals are sometimes forced to register as sex offenders, a label that drastically affects job, housing and education prospects for the rest of their lives.
"This bill gives a lot of people hope," said Tracy Johnson, 23, an HIV-positive man from Ohio, where engaging in sexual activity without disclosing you have HIV is a felony. "These laws have made me feel like I'm a criminal because I have this illness. Even if I disclose, I know I can still be arrested if my partner gets mad at me and tells the police I didn't do so."
For years, many AIDS activists have argued that laws that punish HIV exposure or transmission cannot be applied justly. Instead of protecting the public health, activists argue, these statutes often backfire, discouraging people from seeking testing.
A fact sheet created by the Center for HIV Law and Policy, AIDS United, Lambda Legal and the ACLU AIDS Project summarizes the problems with HIV criminalization and the measures the new bill takes to address them. The bill has 12 cosponsors. Is your representative one of them?
Cosponsors: Reps. Donna Christensen (D-VI), Hansen Clarke (D-MI-13), Steve Cohen (D-TN-9), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ-7), Maurice Hinchey D-NY-22), Jesse Jackson D-IL- 2), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Mike Quigley (D-IL-5), Charles Rangel (D-NY-15), Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (D-MP), Jose Serrano (D-NY-16), Lynn Woolsey (D-CA-6).
Julie Turkewitz is the staff writer at Housing Works.
The New York State Criminal Justice Initiative
The Criminal Justice Initiative (CJI) was developed by the NYS DOH AIDS Institute in 1990 in response to the needs of inmates and ex-offenders with or at risk for HIV. Its goal is to provide a continuum of HIV prevention and supportive services, and funding is divided in the following categories: Services to Women; Services to Men; Community Services Coordination upon Release; and a prison HIV hotline.
The services provided in correctional settings include HIV prevention interventions, peer educator training, HIV counseling and testing, HIV supportive services, and transitional planning.
The CJI also funds community-based organizations to provide re-entry assistance for ex-offenders with HIV, including transportation, supportive services, risk reduction counseling, coordination of health and human services, and referral to community case management. The Prison HIV Hotline offers state inmates the opportunity to call collect for HIV information and counseling.
In facilities served by DOH and its contractors, voluntary HIV testing, anonymous or confidential, is offered. Dicxon Valderruten of the Osborne Association (funded by CJI since 1990) says, "Inmates often feel more comfortable when they get services from an outside agency. For example, thay may choose to take the HIV test with us because we're not part of the system."
Agencies funded as of March 2011 are: Pathstone Corporation (pathstone.org), Women's Prison Association (wpaonline.org), AIDS Community Services of Western New York (aidscommunityservice.com), Action for a Better Community (abcinfo.org), Southern Tier AIDS Program (stapinc.org), Center for Community Alternatives (communityalternatives.org), AIDS Community Resources (aidscommunityresources.com), AIDS Council of Northeastern New York (aidscouncil.org), Mid Hudson Valley AIDS Task Force (arcs.org), Osborne Association (osborneny.org), Community Health Action of Staten Island (chasiny.org), Group Ministries (groupministries.com), and Roswell Park (roswellpark.org).