Michael Johnson was released from Booneville Correctional Center on Tuesday, July 9th, 25 years before his expected release date. “Leaving prison is such a great feeling,” he told a BuzzFeed News reporter. Mr. Johnson was accused and convicted of failing to disclose his positive HIV status with a number of his sexual partners, leading to an unreasonable and harsh sentence of 31 years – some of which he was spending in solitary confinement.
Although members of our MO HIV Justice Coalition were thrilled to hear that Micheal was released and is now on parole, his trial and conviction were both harrowing indicators of the outdated understanding Missouri and the United States have of HIV.
As we’ve written in the past, HIV is no longer a death sentence– yet it is treated as such by being the only medical condition that is criminalized in the state of Missouri. Medical advancements have made it so that a single pill per day can enable a person living with HIV to suppress the virus to the point that it is undetectable and untransmittable. Life expectancy for people living with HIV is nearly the same as the general population. Missouri’s criminal statutes, however, do not reflect the current reality that people living with HIV can live full, healthy, robust lives. Written in the early 90’s (and amended to be even more punitive in the early 2000’s), our laws instead treat those who do not disclose their HIV status similarly– and sometimes, as in Michael’s case–worse than murderers. Moreover, Missouri’s HIV-specific statutes criminalize acts that pose no risk of HIV transmission whatsoever.
During this past legislative session, Reps. McCreery and Rehder filed HBs 166 and 167, respectively. These bills aimed to modernize our HIV-specific statutes by eliminating language reflective of outdated, inaccurate medical knowledge. Both bills were also written to clarify the legal role of intent– if someone is taking steps to prevent the transmission of HIV, then they are clearly not intending to transmit HIV. With intent considered, the bills reduced punishment from a felony to a misdemeanor. Both bills were heard and passed out of committee, with HB 167 making it to debate on the House floor. It did not pass out of the House, however, and while the bill was being debated, the language reducing the punishment had been removed
Michael’s release is a reason to celebrate, but there is still work to be done. Justice has not been reached. The state of Missouri, and the nation more broadly, needs to talk not only about transmission prevention, but the way that race and sexuality play into our legal and societal decision making. The jury that sentenced Michael only had one person of color and zero living with HIV. The prosecutor, who has now stated that Michael’s case was “embarrassing”, also said that “I was hamstrung in a sense because I was forced to operate under the current laws that we now have. Which I would agree are antiquated, outdated, and based upon something that science would prove is not accurate,”
Our current criminal codes create a public stigma that harms persons living with HIV, and makes a holistic approach to ending the epidemic virtually impossible. Public education, better access to healthcare, and community planning are all essential components of effective treatment and prevention that cannot be utilized until people, like Michael, are no longer afraid to disclose their status for fear of criminal prosecution.
Empower Missouri and the MO HIV Justice Coalition hope that Mr. Johnson’s release from prison can spark a public education movement that brings our knowledge and awareness of HIV into the modern era, and help both our state and federal governments pass legislation that matches our scientific understanding of HIV.