How Criminal Laws Target People Living With HIV

By Amira Hasenbush and Ayako Miyashita
December 4, 2015
The Pride LA

In the current political climate, it’s almost impossible not to think about the criminal justice system – whether it protects and serves, how it helps or harms our communities, and whether justice is being delivered equitably and fairly. These conversations lead to examination of every step of the system – stop and frisk, arrests to convictions, sentencing and re-entry. But what do you do when laws have the specific and stated purpose to target a specific population? In California, there are four such laws that apply to people living with HIV (PLWH). These laws criminalize otherwise legal conduct or increase penalties for criminal offenses based on a person’s HIV-positive status. There has been a growing consensus that laws that single out HIV and treat HIV differently from other communicable diseases add to the already heavy burden of stigma that HIV carries.

HIV criminalization rates both in California and nationally may be much higher than currently estimated, according to data that the Williams Institute obtained from the California Department of Justice. California is generally known as a state that rarely utilizes its HIV criminal laws, and previous estimates identified only a handful of individuals coming into contact with the criminal justice system on the basis of their HIV-positive status. It came as a big surprise when we found that 800 people had been involved in 1,263 HIV-related criminal incidents from the time these laws were passed in 1988 through June 2014.

For the full op-ed, click here.