Bill to Modernize Discriminatory HIV Criminalization Laws Passes Senate

Senate approves SB 239 – authored by Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblymember Todd Gloria – which reforms outdated laws enacted during a time of fear and ignorance to make them more consistent with laws involving other serious communicable diseases
May 31, 2017

Sacramento – Today the Senate passed a bill authored by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblymember Todd Gloria (D-San Diego) that will modernize laws that criminalize and stigmatize people living with HIV.  Senate Bill 239 would amend California’s HIV criminalization laws, enacted in the 1980s and ‘90s at a time of fear and ignorance about HIV and its transmission, to make them consistent with laws involving other serious communicable diseases.

The bill now moves to the Assembly for consideration.

SB 239 updates California criminal law to approach transmission of HIV in the same way as transmission of other serious communicable diseases. It also brings California statutes up to date with the current understanding of HIV prevention, treatment and transmission. Specifically, it eliminates several HIV-specific criminal laws that impose harsh and draconian penalties, including for activities that do not risk exposure or transmission of HIV. Currently it is a felony punishable up to nearly a decade in prison to expose – not transmit – HIV, while all other diseases are misdemeanors. This means that someone can be convicted of a felony if there is no infection, or even zero risk of infection. SB 239 would make HIV subject to the laws that apply to other serious communicable diseases, thereby removing discrimination and stigma for people living with HIV, and maintaining public health.

“HIV is a public health issue, not a criminal issue,” said Senator Wiener. “These felonies, which treat HIV differently than all other serious communicable diseases, stigmatize people living with HIV and discourage people from getting tested and into treatment. By criminalizing HIV, California is undermining public health and increasing infection rates. In particular, these laws disproportionately impact HIV positive women and people of color, pushing them farther into the shadows, as opposed to bringing into the light where they can receive treatment and get healthy. We should rely on science and public health principles, not on scare tactics and anecdotal horror stories that only serve to increase paranoia around HIV.”

“Today, we are one step closer toward achieving the most significant victory in combatting the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS,” said Assemblymember Todd Gloria (D-San Diego). “In our fight against HIV/AIDS and its related stigma, we must strive to provide uninhibited access to HIV testing and treatment while removing any fear in knowing one’s status. SB 239 helps get us there. I am grateful for Senator Wiener’s work to pass this bill in the Senate and now, as SB 239’s principal co-author, I look forward to ensuring the Assembly does the exact same.”

The bill is sponsored by Equality California, the ACLU of California, APLA Health, Black AIDS Institute, Lambda Legal and Positive Women’s Network – USA, and over 130 other health and LGBT organizations. SB 239 is co-authored by Senators Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), and Assemblymembers David Chiu (D-San Francisco) and Susan Eggman (D-Stockton.)  

“Laws targeting people living with HIV were bad public health policy when they were passed -- in an era of ignorance and fear -- and are bad public health policy today,” said Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California. “It's time for California law to recognize years of advances in HIV understanding and treatment and to modernize its approach to HIV.”

Legislators passed a number of laws three decades ago, at the height of the HIV epidemic, that criminalized behaviors of people living with HIV or added HIV-related penalties to existing crimes. These laws were based on fear and on the limited medical understanding of the time.  When most of these laws were passed, there were no effective treatments for HIV and discrimination against people living with HIV was rampant.

In the decades since, societal and medical understanding of HIV has greatly improved. Effective treatments dramatically lengthen and improve the quality of life for people living with HIV—treatments that also nearly eliminate the possibility of transmission. This makes HIV-positive people who take medication non-infectious. In addition, similar treatments are available to HIV-negative people to nearly eliminate risk of infection. Laws criminalizing people with HIV do nothing to further public health and, in fact, stigmatize them, discouraging testing or obtaining necessary medical care.  The laws also reduce the likelihood of disclosure of a positive HIV status to sexual partners.

HIV criminalization disproportionately affects women and people of color. Forty-three percent of those criminalized under California’s HIV-specific criminal laws are women, despite comprising only 13 percent of people living with HIV in the state. Blacks and Latinos make up two-thirds of people who came into contact with the criminal justice system based on their HIV status, despite comprising only about half of people living with HIV/AIDS in California.

In addition to the organizations sponsoring the bill, it is supported by over 80 other health, LGBT, and community organizations from all across California.