In six U.S. states, individuals living with HIV who are found guilty of knowingly exposing a partner are required to be registered as a sex offender. They can face felony charges, or felony-level punishments, in 32 states.
But as breakthrough HIV drug treatments and medical studies show there is essentially no risk of sexually exposing someone to HIV while taking antiretroviral drug therapy (ART), states are being forced to play catch-up to the science, and stigma, of the AIDS virus.
There are 1.1 million people living with HIV in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2003 and 2013, ProPublica reported (in the most recent data available) 2,352 records of HIV-related charges, with at least 541 convictions or guilty pleas.
"It's not easy to get people to agree with science," said Bruce Richman, executive director at the Prevention Access Campaign, an organization that seeks to provide the public with accurate information about HIV exposure. "It conflicts with their long, deeply held beliefs about transmission risks."
Last month Gov. Jerry Brown signed bill SB 239, making California the fourth state to rewrite HIV exposure laws that were enacted in the 1990s during the AIDS epidemic. Before the legislative reform, a person living with HIV who violated the California law could spend eight years in prison, with additional time if the person was a sex worker. The punishment resembled a typical sentence for voluntary manslaughter — three, six or 11 years in prison.
The bill reduced charges from a felony to a misdemeanor, with maximum sentencing in a county jail now set at six months, and is no longer HIV-specific but includes other communicable diseases, such as hepatitis. Anyone who intentionally attempts to transmit a disease without success will be charged with a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of 90 days.
While the bill passed in the California Assembly 44-13, not all legislators agreed with the decision.
"I'm of the mind that if you purposefully inflict another with a disease that alters their lifestyle the rest of their life, puts them on a regimen of medications to maintain any kind of normalcy, it should be a felony. It's absolutely crazy to me that we should go light on this," Sen. Joel Anderson said as he debated the bill, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.
"This isn't about making people sick; it's about people living with HIV being able to live their lives and not be subject to felonies that people with other communicable diseases are not subject to," said Jo Michael, legislative manager at LGBT advocacy group Equality California. In fact, Michael said this legislation will lead to more individuals seeking treatment. "HIV was singled out, and that increases the stigma," Michael said. "If you want to lower new infection rates and have fewer people living with it over time, addressing the disparity in discrimination is a way to do it."