Published: Tue, October 10, 2017
Medicine | By Earnest Bishop

California just dramatically lowered the punishment for willfully exposing someone to HIV

California just dramatically lowered the punishment for willfully exposing someone to HIV

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill on Friday that lowers from a felony to a misdemeanor the crime of knowingly exposing a sexual partner to HIV without disclosing the infection. The act of knowingly donating HIV-infected blood, also a felony now, will be decriminalized.

State Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco and Assemblymember Todd Gloria of San Diego, both Democrats, authored the bill, known as SB (Senate Bill) 239.

"HIV should be treated like all other serious infectious diseases, and that's what SB 239 does", he added.

In 24 states, laws require persons who are aware that they have HIV to disclose their status to sexual partners and 14 states require disclosure to needle-sharing partners.

The change in the law means that it now treats HIV in the same way as it does other communicable diseases.

Advocates have long warned that these laws discourage people from getting tested, creating a legal incentive not to know your status, as well as noting the use of them to disproportionately go after people of color.

People who intentionally exposed others to HIV were punished with up to eight years in prison under the current law, and the new bill will lower that jail time to a maximum of six months. Jerry Brown signed the new law last Friday is set to take effect on January 1, 2018.

However, not everyone is convinced of the wisdom of such a decision.

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"It's absolutely insane to me that we should go light on this", he added.

The statutes that the new laws revise date back to the late 1980s, when AIDS had emerged as a public health crisis in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and NY. In fact, there were cases where the state prosecuted people that had no physical contact with an HIV-free person.

"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", Anderson said during the floor debate.

Of the 379 HIV-related convictions in California between 1988 and 2014, only seven - less than 2 percent - included the intent to transmit HIV, according to a recent series of studies from the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute.

The bill's opponents said that many patients living with HIV do not take their medications consistently enough to prevent the disease's spread, and focused on the "intentional" component of the previously felony offense. It almost estimates the possibility of transmission. "A lot of what was behind this was basically looking at the laws to see how we could improve public health and modernizing these laws, so HIV is treated the same".

Rick Zbur, the executive director of Equality California, says the law "is not only fair, but it's good public health", and will be "good for all Californians".

In addition to the organizations sponsoring the bill, SB 239 was supported by CHCR members including the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the Los Angeles HIV Law and Policy Project, the Transgender Law Center, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the Free Speech Coalition and the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP).

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