Groups Commit To Future Advocacy As Governor Northam Signs Bill Modernizing HIV Laws

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Ralph Northam
Photo: Office of the Governor

Equality Virginia and HIV advocacy groups ECHO-VA, Positive Women’s Network-USA, and The Sero Project applaud Governor Ralph Northam for signing legislation to modernize HIV laws in Virginia on April 2.

Senate Bill 1138, sponsored by Senators Jennifer McClellan and Mamie Locke modernizes Virginia’s outdated and ineffective HIV criminalization law, making Virginia the first state in the South to do so. While the groups expressed excitement for the achievement, they also voiced disappointment in the bill’s inclusion of a felony penalty.

SB 1138 includes several updates to the Virginia Code aimed at reducing HIV stigma and decreasing barriers to prevention services and treatment by modernizing statute language and testing requirements. In addition to removing discriminatory laws that are often used against marginalized populations, like sex workers and people who use drugs, the legislation helps bring HIV in line with other sexually transmitted infections for which there is preventative care and treatment.

Unfortunately, the final bill kept the punishment a Class 6 felony penalty connected to transmission, carrying a fine of $2,500 and/or imprisonment up to five years. Such a heavy penalty reinforces stigma and goes against public health best practices.

The HIV epidemic remains a significant public health issue across the country and in Virginia. There are approximately 25,000 people living with HIV in the commonwealth.
A recent report commissioned by Gov. Northam found that Black, non-Hispanic Virginians were nearly seven times as likely to be living with HIV at the end of 2015 than white, non-Hispanic persons.

“We’re thankful for the many advocates who shared their lived experiences and pushed for changes to Virginia’s HIV laws,” said Vee Lamneck, Equality Virginia Executive Director. “We’re also grateful for the leadership of Senators McClellan and Locke and for the opportunity to have important conversations about creating a more equitable state for Virginians living with HIV. This new law is an important step towards reducing stigma and breaking down barriers to HIV care and prevention. Moving forward, Equality Virginia remains committed and determined to educate and advocate for removing the felony penalty.”

“Positive Women’s Network – USA is very glad that the Virginia General Assembly and Governor Northam have taken this very critical step toward ending the unjust criminalization of HIV status, which harms marginalized communities, is detrimental to the safety and wellbeing of people living with HIV, and impedes efforts to end the epidemic,” said Breanna Diaz, Policy Director, Positive Women’s Network – USA. “While the changes to the law raise the bar for prosecutors and will make it harder to use, removing the felony is still important to achieve the objectives of removing HIV stigma from law and protecting vulnerable communities.”

“ECHO VA Coalition considers this as a historical stepping stone from the Virginia General Assembly and Governor Ralph Northam in understanding the inequities that exist within HIV criminalization and a need for these antiquated laws to be modernized in the Commonwealth,” said Cedric Pulliam, Co-Founder, ECHO VA Coalition.

“Although we see this as a victory we acknowledge the call of people living with HIV in Virginia to continue to fight to change the criminal penalty level of the modernized law from a felony to a misdemeanor level and we accept that fight and will continue efforts until this has been successfully accomplished. The stigma and discrimination intertwined within these laws and punishment level is deeply entrenched systemically and we will fight to the end to ensure to make this significant change.”

“The Sero Project applauds the hard work done by ECHO-VA, Equality Virginia, coalition members, and allies for making these important changes in Virginia’s statutes, said Kamaria Laffrey, Sero Project Program Director.

“HIV criminalization laws work against public health. These laws punish those who learn their status and privileges those who remain ignorant. They create mistrust of health professionals, making people who test HIV positive less likely to cooperate with partner notification, treatment adherence and other prevention programs. The changes made in SB 1138 make significant improvements to remove these barriers and protect marginalized communities at highest risk of unjust prosecutions and mass incarceration.”

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