It's Time to End HIV Criminalization

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November 30, 2012

The first World AIDS Day was almost 25 years ago and, sadly, the United States continues to have one of the world's largest populations of people living with HIV. The communities Lambda Legal serves—and that brought our organization to this work from the outset of the HIV/AIDS crisis in this country—remain among those most heavily affected. The CDC reported this month that the greatest number of infections occurred among young gay and bisexual men and nearly half of all those new infections among youth occur in young black gay and bisexual men.

We have not come nearly far enough in educating the public about HIV and in reducing stigma and discrimination. Fear and ignorance about HIV remain serious problems that both marginalize people and pose barriers to treatment and care.

HIV criminalization is a striking example of how stigma and discrimination affect people living with HIV and how the government perpetuates these stigmatizing messages. Imposing unfair criminal penalties on people with HIV has led to a society where people are imprisoned, classified as felons and forced to register as sex offenders, based on outdated and inaccurate information regarding HIV.

Lambda Legal remains committed to defending people with HIV against discrimination—because living with HIV is not a crime.

In June, Lambda Legal filed an appeal on a petition for post-conviction relief in the Iowa Supreme Court on behalf of an HIV-positive Iowa man, Nick Rhoades. Rhoades was sentenced to 25 years in prison and lifetime registration as a sex offender after having a one-time sexual encounter with another man during which they used a condom.

Thirty-nine states have HIV-specific criminal statutes or have brought HIV-related criminal charges resulting in more than 80 prosecutions in the United States in the past two years alone. Among other things, HIV criminalization perpetuates the many myths and misconceptions that fuel other types of discrimination against people living with HIV. It sends an inaccurate message regarding prevention responsibility, creates a disincentive to getting tested, and may actually discourage disclosure of HIV status.

Read Lambda Legal's HIV Stigma and Discrimination in the U.S.: An Evidence-Based Report.