Bill to Modernize Discriminatory HIV Criminalization Laws Passes First Major Hurdle

March 28, 2017

Sacramento – Today the Senate Public Safety voted in favor of 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 is sponsored by Equality California, the ACLU of California, APLA Health, Black AIDS Institute, Lambda Legal and Positive Women’s Network – USA, and over 80 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.) 

Along with Senator Wiener, a member of the Public Safety Committee, Senators Mitchell, Skinner, Hannah-Beth Jackon (D-Santa Barbara), and Steve Bradford (D- Gardena) voted in favor of the bill. Senator Skinner, the Chair of the Public Safety Committee, signed on as a co-author during committee. SB 239 now moves onto the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“HIV is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue,” said Senator Wiener. “These laws, which stigmatize people living with HIV and discourage people from getting tested and into treatment, need to go. It’s time for California to lead, and to send a clear signal that we are taking a science-based approach and not a fear-based approach in how we treat HIV. I want to thank Equality California and the entire coalition supporting this incredibly important bill for their partnership, and I want to thank my colleagues on the Senate Public Safety Committee for moving this bill forward.” 

“With today’s approval by the Senate Public Safety Committee, we become one step closer to making state law less stigmatized and more equitable,” said Assemblymember Gloria. “Make no mistake, SB 239’s purpose is to encourage more Californians to get tested for HIV. Anything that impedes that – like the shame and fear codified in our current statute – must be changed. I am grateful to the members of the Senate Public Safety Committee, Equality California, and all of the supporters of this bill who helped make today’s success possible.”

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.

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.