US: Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists recommends the elimination of HIV-specific statutes criminalising HIV and the end to prosecutions

CSTE recommendations for modernization of laws to prevent HIV criminalization

I. Statement of the Problem:

The Ending the HIV Epidemic (EHE): A Plan for America initiative aims to reduce new HIV infections in the United States by 90% by 2030 through leveraging critical advances in HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment and outbreak response. People with living with HIV (PLWH) and stakeholders continue to raise concerns about HIV criminalization as a potential barrier to achieving HIV prevention and care goals . These laws may prevent public health agencies from responding effectively to the HIV epidemic by perpetuating stigma, racism, xenophobia, social and economic injustice, and reducing willingness for people to participate in HIV prevention, testing, and care.

HIV criminalization is defined as laws and policies that are used to criminalize the transmission of or exposure to HIV, or to enhance sentencing because a person has HIV. These laws and policies put PLWH potentially at risk for prosecution in all states, with the majority of states having HIV-specific laws in place. However, state laws, and the application of these laws, vary widely. Most laws do not account for the actual scientificallybased level of risk engaged in or risk reduction measures undertaken by PLWH or persons exposed to HIV. In some states, public health officials are required by law to share protected health information with law enforcement officials.

HIV criminalization has not been shown to be an effective public health intervention. There is no association between HIV infection diagnosis rates and the presence of state laws criminalizing HIV exposure. Studies have suggested these laws are associated with decreased HIV testing and increased HIV prevalence. Surveys among PLWH have not demonstrated that these laws have an effect on sexual practices and therefore, these laws do not serve as a deterrent for potential HIV exposure. Given the punitive but ineffectual outcomes of these laws on PLWH, existing HIV-related laws must be eliminated.

II. Statement of the desired action(s) to be taken:

HIV criminalization laws and policies do not reflect the current science of HIV, but instead criminalize behaviors posing low or negligible risk for HIV transmission, stigmatize and discriminate against PLWH, and undermine national and local HIV prevention efforts. CSTE joins numerous other organizations across the globe in strongly opposing any criminalization of HIV exposure or transmission and recommends that all states, U.S. territories, and local jurisdictions:

1) Eliminate HIV-specific statutes that criminalize HIV, including HIV-specific penalties under general statutes.

2) Eliminate prosecution of HIV under general statutes (non-HIV specific criminalization).

3) Change relevant state and local statutes to specifically prohibit the use of HIV-related, public health data for uses outside of public health purposes, including law enforcement, family law, immigration, civil suits, or other legal purposes.

Public health agencies are the central authorities of the nation’s public health system and must actively inform public policy to ensure laws, regulations, and policies are data driven and scientifically sound. Local, state, and territorial public health officials can do this by engaging in the following activities.

1. Investigate their city, county, and/or state’s laws, regulations, and policies on HIV criminalization and data protection.

2. Assess the disproportionate impact of HIV criminalization laws (in their city, county, and state) on racial, ethnic, immigrant, LGBTQ and other priority populations (now referred to collectively as priority populations). Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists Interim-20-ID-05 2

3. Engage with and educate public health legal counsel to assure they are up to date on surveillance technology and science of HIV transmission.

4. Review internal legal counsel and health department policies and practices with regard to public health data release for law enforcement purposes and prohibit or significantly limit data release or strengthen data protections when data must be released.

5. Provide unequivocal public health leadership, education, support and information to elected state and local officials, prosecutors, and law enforcement on the relative risks of transmission and the dangers of a punitive response to HIV exposure on our ability to respond to the epidemic.

6. Provide information at legislative or governmental hearings emphasizing data-driven and scientifically sound public health arguments against HIV criminalization.

7. Engage community stakeholders most affected by the epidemic on the impact of HIV criminalization on their lives. Invite them to partner with their relevant public health department to eliminate these laws.

8. Ensure states and local jurisdictions assess the impact of HIV criminalization and address action steps for HIV decriminalization in their EHE initiative implementation plans and the disproportionate impact on priority populations.

9. Identify and share best practices with elected state and local officials, law enforcement and community stakeholders related to successes in changing laws and policies to prevent HIV criminalization.

10. Provide information to the media on advances in HIV treatment and prevention and the detrimental impact of HIV criminalization and prosecution on public health efforts.

III. Public Health Impact:

Preventing HIV criminalization will diminish the burden that has been placed on priority populations and strengthen public health interventions. HIV decriminalization has the potential to engage more individuals in HIV testing and care, leading to earlier antiretroviral treatment (ART) initiation, increased viral suppression, and decreased transmission. Furthermore, prevention activities can be strengthened as more individuals become aware of their HIV status and potential risks for acquiring HIV.

1. Increase HIV testing. Studies suggest that HIV criminalization laws deter participation in HIV testing. Deterrence to HIV testing propagates HIV transmission and results in missed opportunities for HIV care and early ART initiation specifically in priority populations. Thirty-eight percent of new HIV transmissions are attributed to PLWH who are unaware of their status; therefore, HIV testing is essential to increasing awareness among PLWH.

2. Decrease stigma and discrimination related to HIV. Given the heightened community concerns regarding law enforcement actions in minority communities, it is critical that public health activities are decoupled from law enforcement. HIV criminalization perpetuates stigma and discrimination, which are significant barriers to EHE, thereby fueling the epidemic. Eliminating HIV criminalization laws will reduce stigma and may help meet EHE targets.

3. Remove a disincentive to participation in public health efforts (i.e., EHE Pillars: Prevent, Diagnose, Treat, and Respond) Trust is the cornerstone of public health, yet communities of color have a long history of systemic and institutional racism that has eroded trust in public health. Public health officials and community members have raised concerns that routinely-collected public health data can be misused for HIV criminalization and contribute to community opposition to partner services and cluster response. Removing HIV criminalization laws and securing HIV data protections will help to rebuild trust in public health and engage communities of color in critical public health services.

The full statement is available here: