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Criminalization of HIV Status in the United States

HIV criminalization laws in the United States are under scrutiny from the United Nations (UN) and the White House. Criminalization is making certain behaviors illegal or treating a person who does that behavior as a criminal.1

There have been recent changes in the Supreme Court and recent rulings around healthcare. It seems like healthcare laws are at the front of many people's minds. What is the history of HIV criminalization in the US? Can we change the future of HIV laws in the United States?

History of HIV criminalization in the US

HIV criminalization laws began in the 1980s as the AIDS pandemic first started in the United States. They were written and put into effect during a time of fear and ignorance. At the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, there was a lot of stigma around HIV and AIDS. The fact that HIV disproportionately affected men who have sex with men added to the stigma.2

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Many of the HIV criminalization laws were meant to control the behaviors of people who had HIV. Lawmakers felt that by controlling behavior, they could also stop the transmission of HIV. These laws were also meant to help decrease some of the fear around the HIV epidemic.2

Current HIV criminalization laws in the US

Currently, 35 states in the US still have HIV criminalization laws on record. Some of these laws are specific to HIV status. Some are broader and cover all sexually transmitted infections, with HIV falling into that category. Some of the laws add time to the person's sentence if someone with HIV is found guilty of a crime. Since 2014, nine states have modernized or completely canceled their HIV criminalization laws.3

What is the future of HIV criminalization in the US?

Both the UN and the White House are calling for reform of HIV criminalization laws in the United States. These current laws do not control behavior or curb the transmission of HIV. There have been states that have canceled or updated their HIV laws. But there are still more states with HIV criminalization laws than states without.3,4

The White House recognizes that these laws are outdated. The laws do not reflect the current science and research behind HIV. Our understanding of HIV shows that these laws do not help stop the transmission of HIV. They also increase differences in health status and outcomes, especially among:3

  • Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)
  • Sex workers
  • LGBTQ+ and transgender people, in particular
  • People who inject drugs
  • People who have been involved in the justice system

Health Not Prisons Collective

One group combating HIV criminalization laws is the Health Not Prisons Collective (HNPC). HNPC recognizes that criminalization is never an effective tool for combating health challenges.5

The HNPC wants to engage members of the HIV community to create change. They work with multiple partners and resources within the HIV community. They also work with people who are disproportionately affected by HIV. This includes members of the Latinx, Black, and transgender communities.5

This group works on many different levels to change how people think about HIV laws. Their website contains more information on how to get involved if you are interested. Besides community focus, the HNPC works within the legal system and engages policymakers. They want to:5

  1. Change state HIV laws
  2. Reduce imprisonment due to HIV status
  3. Expand legal resources
This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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