(JEFFERSON CITY, MO)…After decades on the books, Missouri lawmakers have finally passed legislation to update the criminal codes dealing with the prosecution of people living with HIV.
The legislation, introduced by Senator Holly Rehder (R-27) and Representative Phil Christofanelli (R-105), rewrites Missouri’s HIV-specific criminal laws. The bill would lower the penalties under the HIV exposure statute and raise the level of intent a prosecutor would need to prove in order to convict someone of a felony. The legislation also updates the law to be consistent with medical science by limiting the law to only cover activities that have been scientifically shown to create a substantial risk of transmission. Further, the measure would combat the stigma associated with HIV by ending the singling out of HIV and instead making the law apply to all “serious non-airborne infectious or communicable diseases.”
Missouri’s current law allows prosecutors to charge an HIV-positive person with a felony based on whether she or he can prove they disclosed their HIV status to their sexual partner. If someone knows they are living with HIV but does not disclose their status before engaging in certain activities considered to be “exposure”— some of which don’t carry any risk of transmission — they can be charged with a class A felony (punishable by 15-30 years in prison) if transmission occurs and with a class B felony (punishable by five to fifteen years in prison), even if no HIV transmission actually occurs. And several Missouri laws punish people living with HIV at a higher level simply because of their HIV status.
Between 1990 and 2019, at least 593 people have been arrested in Missouri for an HIV/hepatitis crime, including 318 who were convicted for those crimes. Missouri has had one arrest for an HIV crime for every 60 people living with HIV in Missouri.
The Missouri HIV Justice Coalition, Empower Missouri, not-for-profits focusing on health care and better public policy, and long-term HIV survivors have supported rewriting the HIV criminalization laws for the last five years.
Empower Missouri’s Executive Director Mallory Rusch said, “We are thankful that Missouri lawmakers have finally taken a step in the right direction and have updated the state’s outdated and medically inaccurate HIV criminalization laws. Empower Missouri believes the updated law will reduce stigma associated with HIV and, in turn, encourage more people to get proper testing and treatment..”
Empower Missouri is pleased with the passage of the legislation, but will also continue to advocate for additional changes to the criminal code in future sessions, including removing the sentencing enhancement for people living with HIV who are charged with prostitution.
“Many people do not know that there have been significant strides in the prevention, testing, and treatment of HIV,” said Rusch. “HIV is often treatable with one pill a day, and people living with HIV have the same life expectancy as the average person with proper treatment. Updating these laws to reflect medical advances is critical to basic justice and fairness to all Missourians.”
In 2019, Missouri had roughly 13,000 people living with HIV, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Many are in the south central part of the state, includingBates, Cedar, St. Francois, Hickory, Wayne, Ozark, Wright, Iron, Madison, Reynolds, Ripley, Crawford and Washington counties.
Empower Missouri staffs the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition and welcomes participation by people living with HIV. Details may be found at: https://empowermissouri.
Empower Missouri (www.EmpowerMissouri.org) is a statewide not-for-profit organization working to secure basic human needs and equal justice for every person in our state through coalition-building and advocacy. Founded as the Missouri Conference on Charities and Corrections in 1901, Empower Missouri has operated under four names in its 120-year history, but always with a focus on access to basic human needs and basic fairness.