California has lowered the penalty for knowingly exposing a sexual partner to HIV from a felony to a misdemeanor. Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 239 on Friday, and the legislation passed on September 11.
Under the previous law, people who exposed or infected others with HIV without disclosing it first could spend up to eight years in prison. Now, jail time has been lowered to a maximum of six months, CNN reports. The same law also reduced the penalty for knowingly donating blood tainted with HIV from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblyman Todd Gloria, both Democrats and sponsors of the bill, said that the old California law was outdated and put a stigma on people living with HIV, in light of advances in medicine and technology. Research has shown that people with HIV who undergo regular treatment have a small chance of spreading the virus through sexual contact.
The most effective way to reduce HIV infections is to destigmatize HIV. To make people comfortable talking about their infection, get tested, get into treatment.
The previous law did not require a risk of infection, so people undergoing treatment could still be charged with a felony, which Wiener said was “extreme and discriminatory.”
Gloria said in a statement that this new law would put California “at the forefront in the fight to stop the spread of HIV.” Wiener added that by reducing the stigma on HIV, the bill would encourage people to get tested, thereby lowering HIV transmission rates.
Republicans staunchly opposed the bill, arguing that it could lead to an increase in infections. Senator Jeff Stone voted against it, and expressed his disapproval.
A pharmacist, Stone said that Wiener and Gloria’s arguments on modern medicine lower HIV transmission rates are misinformed, as three out of four people do not comply with their doctor’s orders on taking the medications.
Stone said, “If you don’t take your AIDS medications and you allow for some virus to duplicate and show a presence, then you are able to transmit that disease to an unknowing partner.”
Senator Joel Anderson, Republican, voted against the bill and argued that it was irresponsible not to disclose having what could be a life-altering infection. “The critical word in this is ‘intentionally.’ When you intentionally put others at risk, you should have responsibility,” Anderson said.
The new law was cheered on by groups such as Californians for HIV Criminalization Reform (CHCR) and Equality California, which all seek to update “stigmatizing laws that criminalize HIV status.”