State Lawmakers Move Forward With HIV Criminal Justice Reform Proposal

Currently, people can go to prison for up to 10 years for not disclosing that they have HIV in situations like sharing a needle, donating blood, or having sex.

Niranajan Shrestha

Updated at 7:38 a.m. Thursday

A panel of Georgia state lawmakers unanimously approved proposed reforms to laws that punish those living with HIV for failing to disclose their diagnosis.

Currently, people can go to prison for up to 10 years for not disclosing that they have HIV in situations like sharing a needle, donating blood, or having sex. The new proposal would punish people with up to one year behind bars only if the intent to infect someone could be proven.

According to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, there were 571 arrests in Georgia under these laws between 1988 and 2017.

As Republican Rep. Sharon Cooper pointed out, science about the virus has changed a lot since the laws were written in the 1980s.

“It is time for us to remove part of the stigma that keeps people that are HIV positive from getting treatment or even go to be identified, which then puts the rest of our population at risk for further infections,” she said.

“The law as it currently stands is really a holdover from a time when there was a lot of fear, a lot of stigma, and the science was really incomplete,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality.

“With the tools we have today to prevent HIV transmission, there’s no reason that our law should be as punitive and stigmatizing as the current law is.”

He said the change “goes a long way to fighting HIV in Georgia.”

Nearly 30 per 100,000 residents in Georgia were HIV positive in 2018, the second-highest rate in the country.

Graham explained that two major health breakthroughs have changed things, specifically: access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) that helps prevent HIV infection and the idea — promoted by the CDC — that with treatment it’s possible to prevent an HIV-positive person from transmitting the virus.

Graham said the new bill would provide those living with HIV a “strong defense” if charged with the crime.

“Right now, the burden has just been on the person living with HIV that they did disclose their HIV status,” he said. “And how do you effectively do that? How do you prove what happened in a conversation?”

“The current law is dangerous,” said HIV-positive activist Nina Martinez at the committee meeting on Tuesday. “People assume it’s safe to disclose when people have been harmed or even killed for disclosing. Just because people don’t want to disclose, it’s not criminal intent.”

Additionally, existing law allows punishment for up to 20 years in prison if someone living with HIV assaults a peace or correctional officer “using his or her body fluids (blood, semen, or vaginal secretions), saliva, urine, or feces.” That section has been removed in the proposed reform, which also fits with modern science, Graham said.

“The science is very clear: people do not contract HIV through those sorts of bodily fluids [like saliva, urine or feces]. It really is blood-to-blood contact. Through sexual intercourse,” he said. “Those are the only ways that people are become infected with HIV. The science is really solid about that.

“It’s really important the laws don’t reflect simple untruths.”

The bill now moves to the rules committee, which decides whether to move it to the full chamber.

Corrections: The number of HIV cases reported in Georgia and the description of the current law have been corrected.