HIV Criminalization Laws and Race Combine To Make The Perfect Storm in Georgia
Imagine having to process the life-altering news that you’ve acquired HIV. Now imagine that your new health status can be weaponized against you, setting the stage for a felony conviction with a penalty of up to ten years in prison. The premise may sound like the story arc of a screenplay, but for Georgians living with HIV, the possibility of entering the criminal justice system because of HIV-related offenses is real, even more so if you’re Black, a sex worker, or identify as LGBTQ.
In Georgia, there are currently seven HIV-specific criminal laws in effect. And according to a report by the Williams Institute UCLA School of Law, 543 people came in contact with the Georgia criminal system under an HIV-specific law between 1988-2017, with 74 convictions, all of which required no proof of conduct likely to transmit HIV, with Black Georgians disproportionately on the receiving end of these laws. But depending on who you ask, HIV-specific laws and those who are prosecuted under such laws are deserving of the harsh penalties or have endured a miscarriage of justice fueled by HIV-related stigma and racism.
Brad Sears, Founding Executive Director of the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law and author of the report: “HIV Criminalization in Georgia: Evaluation of Transmission Risk,” is working to have these laws amended if not entirely dismantled. Sears’ research bolsters efforts of HIV activists and coalitions across the country who are working to reform HIV-specific laws that many believe are rooted in bias against people of color, sexual minorities, and of course, those living with HIV.
“In Georgia, almost two-thirds of the people who are being arrested and convicted are Black men and women — predominantly Black men. This is almost like HIV status as a proxy for race, said Sears.
“You have a disease that already disproportionately impacts Black people. Then you have the current criminal justice system that disproportionately impacts Black people, and you make a crime out of that disease, you've got a huge disproportionality."
Sears, who is also living with HIV, tells The Reckoning that the consequences of criminalizing HIV go far beyond the criminal justice system, fueling stigma, and affecting health outcomes for those living with HIV, making it “less likely for individuals to consistently engage in their own medical care and in public health efforts.”
“Stigma is real. If you're HIV positive, these laws define you as a vector of disease. That's what you are. You're a dangerous vector of disease. And other people should be aware of you,” said Sears. “I think as people with HIV, we get that message a lot. And this is the criminal law reinforcing that. This is how other people are being educated about who I am. And I'm a potential felon just because I have this disease,” he said.
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