US: Kentucky bill proposes downgrading HIV transmission charges from felony to misdemeanour

Kentucky lawmakers taking up HIV/AIDS transmission decriminalization measure

By Stu Johnson

HIV/AIDS is a disease that continues to affect thousands of people across the Commonwealth. It’s an issue getting attention in Frankfort as lawmakers consider legislation tied to the transmission of HIV. The focus is on decriminalization.

The AIDS epidemic came about more than 4 decades ago. Since that time, a great deal has changed regarding how the disease is managed, which in the early 1980’s was deadly. There are laws tied to the illness that are being updated. Kentucky lawmakers are taking up a bill that makes intentional transmission of HIV/AIDS a Class A misdemeanor. It’s currently listed as a felony. Russell GOP Representative Danny Bentley, a retired pharmacist, is sponsoring the bill.

“Most people don’t realize that HIV is not their number one STD today. It’s human papilloma, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. So, we’re putting it on the same level as the other ones and decreasing the penalty,” said Bentley.

Bentley said, quote, “having HIV is not a crime, it’s an infection.”

Morgan Cole is an advanced practice registered nurse and heads the Sexually Transmitted Infections Task Force at Louisville’s Norton’s HealthCare. Cole said it’s not about completely eliminating accountability.

“There absolutely is a need to not eliminate these laws altogether, but to modernize them to what we know now. Eliminating the laws kind of lets people who are out there doing things with ill intention. Those no accountability for those people and we definitely want to make sure that we have law in place that hold people accountable, if they’re putting people at risk intentionally,” said Cole.

Cole noted the criminalization of HIV is still widespread throughout the United States. She added 35 states including Kentucky criminalize actions involving HIV. The RN said the situation today is much different than in the 1980s.

“We have anti-retroviral therapy and if a person is virally suppressed and their viral load is zero they cannot pass HIV to other people. We didn’t have pre-exposure prophylaxis when these laws were written,” said Cole.

Cole said the laws need updating to make sure there aren’t convictions of people who are doing everything in their power to prevent transmission.

Chris Hartman is director of Kentucky Fairness and is spending a significant amount of time at the State Capitol during the current General Assembly session. He said the UCLA-based Williams Institute reports Kentucky saw 32 people arrested for HIV transmission since 2006. And although the numbers might be considered small, Hartman said the felony charge option carries a heavy weight.

“This is all about de-stigmatizing HIV and AIDS which more than 40 years after the original HIV pandemic and AIDS pandemic is the right and just thing to do,” said Hartman.

Hartman says most of the previous arrests occurred in Louisville, Lexington, and northern Kentucky. He says women in general have comprised of about two-thirds of those arrests.

Hartman said bringing HIV/AIDs transmission prosecution in line with other sexually transmitted infections could also increase testing.

“We know that right away when people learn that they are HIV positive that they change their behaviors and so the risk of transmission decreases first off because folks end up becoming safer, to disclose their status, to not engage in sexual activity, if they learn that they are HIV positive,” said Hartman.

Registered Nurse Morgan Cole said there have been increases in HIV cases. She said Kentucky has been identified by the CDC as a high risk of HIV outbreaks, linked to injection drug use. Cole said there are 54 counties in the Commonwealth with increased risks of having an outbreak. And Chris Hartman said it’s testing again that can make the biggest difference in bringing down HIV cases.