Bill to Support Public Health by Repealing and Modernizing Discriminatory HIV Laws in Virginia Passes Senate, Heads to House Courts of Justice Committee

The bill aims to repeal and modernize current HIV criminalization laws that disproportionately impact people living with HIV, specifically Black, Brown, Indigenous and other communities of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.

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Photo by Eric Hause

Senate Bill 1138 moves to the House Courts of Justice Committee after receiving Virginia Senate approval on Friday by a 21-17 margin. The bill, sponsored by Senators Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) and Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), aims to repeal and modernize current HIV criminalization laws that disproportionately impact people living with HIV, specifically Black, Indigenous and other communities of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.

Virginia is one of 37 states with laws criminalizing the alleged potential exposure, non-disclosure or potential transmission of HIV.

According to HIV researchers and policy experts, HIV criminalization laws like the ones reflected in the Code of Virginia result in poor public health outcomes and disproportionately impact communities of color. A 2017 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found no association between HIV diagnosis rates and the effectiveness of criminal exposure laws.

“We are grateful for the leadership of Senator Locke and Senator McClellan and look forward to continuing our advocacy for SB 1138 in Virginia’s House of Delegates,” said Vee Lamneck, Executive Director of Equality Virginia. “There is no need to single out HIV transmission in criminal law. The commonwealth’s statutes don’t reflect current science and undermine public health strategies. We must pass this bill to help ensure more people have equitable access to HIV testing, prevention and treatment to live full, healthy and productive lives.

The HIV epidemic remains a significant public health issue across the country and in Virginia.

According to the Virginia Department of Health’s most recent data, approximately 25,000 people live with HIV in the commonwealth. Data highlights that communities of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, people who use drugs, and sex workers are most likely to be impacted by HIV.

Despite only making up 19.5% of the state’s population, Black people represent 58% of persons living with HIV in Virginia. The rate of Black males living with HIV is 5.5 times higher than white males and the rate of Black females living with HIV is 15.1 times that of white females.

Meanwhile, the rate of Hispanic/Latino males living with HIV is 2.2 times higher than white males and the rate of Hispanic/Latina females living with HIV is 4.1 times that of white females.

“SB 1138 will make a substantial difference in creating a more equitable justice system for all Virginians,” said Sen. Locke. “HIV criminalization harms public health and stigmatizes HIV status. I applaud my colleagues in the Senate for passing SB 1138 to modernize outdated laws and ensure current Virginia law reflects science and public health knowledge.”

“It’s time to repeal outdated laws that discriminate against people with HIV and harm public health,” Sen. McClellan said. “When people are afraid that they may put a target on their back for criminal prosecution, they won’t get tested for HIV, and they don’t get treated for HIV. By updating these laws, we can help Virginians feel safe to get the health care they need.”

SB 1138 would create several updates to the Virginia Code limiting the scope of the HIV criminalization law to prevent criminalizing a person’s HIV status and eliminating additional punishments for people living with HIV if charged under the law.

Research in other states highlights how HIV criminalization laws are enforced based on race and gender. A study by The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law of Georgia’s HIV criminalization law reported that Black men and women are significantly more likely to be arrested for HIV-related offenses than their white peers, and Black men are nearly twice as likely to be convicted than white men.

“We know laws that specifically target people living with HIV harms public health,” said Deirdre Johnson, Ending Criminalization of HIV and Overincarceration in Virginia (ECHO VA) Coalition co-founder. “Current statutes are rooted in fear and bias and must be repealed to ensure a healthy state for everyone. We must continue to use our voices to ensure the General Assembly passes SB 1138.”

“We are inspired by SB 1138’s progress in the state legislature,” said Cedric Pulliam, ECHO VA Coalition co-founder. “Virginia is ready to align its laws with current HIV science.”

Last November, ECHO-VA and the Positive Women’s Network-USA testified about current HIV laws to Virginia’s Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law, a council charged with identifying and making recommendations to address laws that were intended to or could have the effect of promotion or enabling racial discrimination or inequities. The Commission was highly receptive to the testimony and agreed to include a review of the commonwealth’s HIV criminalization law with a recommendation to establish a task force to examine the law’s impact on racial and ethnic minorities in its 2020 report to the Governor.

“To curb the HIV epidemic in Virginia, Virginia’s House of Delegates must pass this bill,” said Breanna Diaz, Policy Director of Positive Women’s Network-USA. “We’re thrilled Virginia’s Senate approved SB 1138. Criminalization has never and will never be the appropriate response to public health. Investing in the care and services people living with HIV need will.”

“Not only are HIV criminalization laws a matter of public health, but an issue of racial justice,”said Kamaria Laffrey with the Sero Project. “These laws are disproportionately enforced against Black people living with HIV. This General Assembly, lawmakers must stop the inappropriate and unjust criminal prosecutions of people living with HIV by passing SB 1138.”