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WA Democrats hope to reduce criminal penalties for intentionally spreading HIV

The Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia. (AP file photo)

It’s been a law on the books for decades – anyone busted for intentionally infecting someone with HIV faces felony first degree assault.

Under a controversial bill passed by the House this week, that crime would be lowered to a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances.

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Republicans unanimously rejected the measure in the House, contending, among other things, that lowering the punishment puts the public at risk.

But supporters argue the state’s current law, enacted in the ’80s and only updated with a few minor changes in the ’90s, is outdated and increases stigma surrounding HIV, which in turn damages public health efforts.

The bill, HB 1551, originally sponsored by current Speaker of the House Democrat Laurie Jinkins and now sponsored by Democratic Rep. Eileen Cody, is a wide ranging bill that makes multiple changes to state law regarding mandatory testing for HIV, what the public health departments can and cannot do in investigating, and allowing minors to get HIV prevention treatment without parental consent, but the provision creating the bulk of the controversy is the reduction of the crime relating to intentionally infecting a person with HIV.

Supporters of the bill say the criminalization of HIV has only led to increased stigma that damages ongoing public efforts, according to the 2016 report from the End AIDS steering committee.

“Criminalizing us with a felony A for having a disease state … that’s not a banner I can get behind anymore, and frankly that doesn’t make people want to rush out and get engaged with public health,” Scott Bertani, an HIV positive man and Lifelong AIDS Alliance member, told lawmakers at a hearing on the bill last session.

“HIV is not the same disease as it was over 30 years ago,” said Lauren Fanning with the Washington HIV Justice Alliance. “The law contributes to stigma so many people with HIV feel by how others treat them like they are dirty and they have a great deal of difficulty overcoming that in their lives.”

Fanning also testified at last year’s committee hearing.

“The law creates fear of being tested, fear of accessing healthcare, and undermines the trust and prevention care and treatment systems impacting our marginalized communities the most,” Fanning added.

Nearly a year later, on the House floor this week, Democratic Rep. Nicole Macri said changing the law was long overdue and would decrease stigma while strengthening public health by finally treating HIV like the disease it is.

“A treatable, a chronic illness, and not a moral failing or criminal justice issue,” Macri said.

But Republicans argued the changed law would put the public at risk by making the crime and penalty for intentionally infecting a person with HIV the same as it is for stealing a candy bar.

Rep. Michelle Caldier said it would have other unintentional consequences by removing a tool for prosecutors who use the HIV felony crime as a method to convict rapists.

“Those rape victims deserve a voice,” Caldier said. “And what’s going to happen to all those rape victims where they were able to prosecute this? And now we’re going to reduce the sentence. We’re going to let those rapists go free. I’m not OK with that! And it breaks my heart that so many people on this floor are.”

Macri painted this bill as a compromise, telling fellow lawmakers that many of her constituents want to completely decriminalize HIV.

Correction:

A previous version of this story stated that the bill would allow minors to get treatment without parental consent. In fact, the bill would allow minors to get prevention treatment.

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