When Senate Bill 239 took effect last year, it made knowingly spreading the HIV virus a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
Opponents of the bill, which was signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown, were furious, speculating it could lead to an increase in HIV transmissions. However, people on the front lines of the fight against HIV/AIDS said the new law was a much-needed step in the right direction, considering treatment and prevention methods have changed significantly since the AIDS epidemic began in 1981.
“If you criminalize HIV, it discourages people from getting tested,” said Carl Baker, the director of legal and legislative affairs for the Desert AIDS Project. “Under the old statute, if you didn’t know your status, you didn’t commit a crime (if you passed the HIV virus to someone else). It was better to be dumb and spread the disease than to be smart and prevent the disease.”
Samuel Garrett-Pate, the communications director for Equality California, said via e-mail that potentially criminalizing those with HIV proved to be bad public policy.
“HIV-specific criminal laws hurt rather than help,” Garrett-Pate said. “There is no evidence that laws targeting people living with HIV for criminal penalties actually reduce the number of new cases of HIV or improve public health in any way. In fact, research suggests that such laws may be a disincentive to testing and disclosure of one’s HIV status and a barrier to seeking care for people living with HIV. In addition, these laws may give HIV-negative people a false sense of security with respect to the health of their sexual partners, thereby encouraging riskier behaviors and more sexually transmitted infections. … HIV decriminalization encourages HIV testing, treatment and disclosure to sexual partners.”
Baker said only one group of people in recent years faced prosecution.
“The only real people who were prosecuted in the last 15 to 20 years were sex workers,” Baker said. “It wasn’t used for the everyday person; it was only people who were picked up for prostitution. That was the targeted audience. I can see the rationale, because if you’re in the sex industry, you’re going to spread it to a lot more people than Mr. Smith on the street.
“But way back in the ’80s, there were some bad actors. There was a male who was infected and was intentionally sleeping with women without telling them. There’s always that one bad actor.”
Garrett-Pate said the law was used to disproportionately target women and people of color.
“Overall, 800 people came into contact with the California criminal-justice system from 1988 to June 2014 either under an HIV-related law or under the misdemeanor exposure law, as it related to a person’s HIV-positive status,” Garrett-Pate wrote. “Black and Latino people made up two-thirds of the people who came into contact with the criminal-justice system based on their HIV status, even though just half of the population living with HIV/AIDS in California is black or Latino. Women made up 43 percent of those who came into contact with the criminal-justice system based on their HIV-positive status, even though just 13 percent of the HIV-positive population in California is women. … White men were significantly more likely to be released and not charged.”
Baker emphasized that testing and public-health awareness are the best ways to battle HIV—not criminalization.
“We want people to be tested and to go into treatment; then they are not infectious and are undetectable,” Baker said. “That’s our goal to ending this epidemic. The combination of Truvada and antiretrovirals keep the likelihood at 99.8 percent of the virus never being transferred. It’s as effective as using a condom. By having something on the books that discouraged people from finding out their status and pushing them underground, that was going to encourage more behaviors that will spread the virus.”
Baker said that despite the progress the Desert AIDS Project and other public-health groups have made in battling HIV, minority groups remain the most at risk.
“The spike in transmissions (has been) in the transgender population and in the minority populations in Riverside County that don’t identify as gay. They use the term ‘men having sex with men,’ because they could be married or have a one-off with another man, and they aren’t out,” Baker said. “That’s the issue, and those are the people we want to get tested, because they aren’t identifying as gay and think they don’t have anything to worry about. Those are the hardest people to get tested—and where the virus is blowing up.”
For information on free and confidential HIV testing, visit gettestedcoachellavalley.org.