A bill that would modernize California’s laws that criminalize and stigmatize people living with HIV today cleared its first major legislative hurdle. The Senate Public Safety Committee approved Senate Bill (SB) 239 by a vote of 5-2. The bill is authored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Asm. Todd Gloria (D-San Diego) and cosponsored by the ACLU of California, APLA Health, Black AIDS Institute, Equality California, Lambda Legal and Positive Women’s Network – USA. The organizations are part of Californians for HIV Criminalization Reform (CHCR), a broad coalition of people living with HIV, HIV and health service providers, civil rights organizations and public health professionals dedicated to ending the criminalization of HIV in California. SB 239 is also co-authored by Senators Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), Nancy Skinner (D-Berkley) and Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblymembers David Chiu (D-San Francisco) and Susan Eggman (D-Stockton.)
“HIV is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue. These laws, which stigmatize people living with HIV and discourage people from getting tested and into treatment, need to go. It’s time for California to lead, and to send a clear signal that we are taking a science-based approach and not a fear-based approach in how we treat HIV,” said Senator Scott Wiener. “I want to thank Equality California and the entire coalition supporting this incredibly important bill for their partnership.”
SB 239 would update California criminal law to approach transmission of HIV in the same way as transmission of other serious communicable diseases. It also brings California statutes up to date with the current understanding of HIV prevention, treatment and transmission. Specifically, it eliminates several HIV-specific criminal laws that impose harsh and draconian penalties, including for activities that do not risk exposure or transmission of HIV.
“With today’s approval by the Senate Public Safety Committee, we become one step closer to making state law less stigmatized and more equitable,” said Assemblymember Todd Gloria. “Make no mistake, SB 239’s purpose is to encourage more Californians to get tested for HIV. Anything that impedes that – like the shame and fear codified in our current statute – must be changed. I am grateful to the members of the Senate Public Safety Committee, Equality California, and all of the supporters of this bill who helped make today’s success possible.”
Legislators passed a number of laws three decades ago at the height of the HIV epidemic that criminalized behaviors of people living with HIV or added HIV-related penalties to existing crimes. These laws were based on fear and on the limited medical understanding of the time. When most of these laws were passed, there were no effective treatments for HIV and discrimination against people living with HIV was rampant. Current treatments for HIV-positive people leave them virtually incapable of transmitting the virus and preventative treatments such as PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) for HIV-negative people reduce risk of contraction by up to 99 percent.
“Our understanding of HIV and its transmission has improved by quantum leaps since these laws were enacted,” said Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California. “California’s HIV criminal laws do not further public health but instead stigmatize people living with HIV and discourage testing and necessary medical care. It’s time to bring California’s HIV laws into the 21st century.”
SB 239 now moves on to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
In addition to the organizations sponsoring the bill, it is currently supported by CHCR members which include 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, Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) and Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education, and Research Project (ESPLERP).