HIV criminalization rates in California and across the nation might be much higher than originally believed, concluded a new study by the Williams Institute. Additionally, Black men and women—as well as white women—were much more likely than white men to be charged under HIV-related laws.

     Entitled “HIV Criminalization in California: Penal Implications for People Living with HIV/AIDS,” this seminal and eye-opening report was produced by UCLA’s (the University of California, Los Angeles) the Williams Institute. According to its mission statement, the Institute “is dedicated to conducting rigorous, independent research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy.  A think tank at UCLA Law, the Williams Institute produces high-quality research with real-world relevance and disseminates it to judges, legislators, policymakers, media and the public.”

      The report analyzed data from the California Department of Justice concerning any individual who’d been in contact with HIV-related criminal laws (the criminal justice system) between 1988 to June 2014.  During that time, findings demonstrated that the state’s four HIV laws affected 800 individuals.  And get a load of this:  95 percent of the cases did not require proof of exposure or transmission in order to prosecute. 

     Here are some of the report’s key findings:

  • Almost every incident in which charges were brought resulted in a conviction (389 out of 390 incidents). Among those with known sentences at the time of conviction, 91 percent were sent to jail or prison for an average of 27 months.
  • Based on charges of these crimes, African-Americans and Latinos/as comprised 67 percent (or two thirds) of those who ran afoul of the criminal justice system.
  • Based on their HIV-positive status, women comprised 43 percent of those who ran afoul of the criminal justice system.
  • The vast majority of these incidents (95 percent) involved sex work.The law that criminalizes sex workers living with HIV does not require intent to transmit HIV or exposure to HIV.
  • Across all HIV-related crimes, white men were significantly more likely to be released and not charged (in 60 percent of their HIV-specific criminal incidents) than expected. Black men (36 percent), black women (43 percent) and white women (39 percent) were significantly less likely to be released and not charged.

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     Congresswoman Barbara Lee, co-chair and co-founder of the bipartisan Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus stated, “’For too long, federal and state laws have discriminated against people living with HIV.  These laws serve only to breed fear, distrust and misunderstanding.  I applaud the Williams Institute for their hard work in drafting this report that shows the real impact of these discriminatory laws on Californians’.”

     In a recent The Pride (a Los Angeles LGBT publication), Amira Hasenbush and Ayako Miyashita(co-authors of the study) penned an article entitled “How Criminal Laws Target People Living with HIV.”  In it, they stated the following:  “’Criminalization in any form can change the course of a person’s life.  But the application of HIV criminal laws is yet another difficult burden placed upon individuals living with HIV.’  

     “’To the degree that these data suggest an unequal application of justice, we must ask ourselves—are these laws fair or are they merely steeped in fear?  Do they protect and serve, help or harm our communities?  Is justice being delivered here?  Our research does not provide us with all the answers to these questions.”

     Hasenbush and Miyashita concluded, “But we can say that just like the rest of the criminal justice system, under HIV criminalization laws, certain communities bear more weight of the penal code than others.”