Sidney Skipper talks about his experiences at Michigan Lobby Day in Lansing.
I’m in Lansing, Michigan at the State Capital Building, with officials from the Michigan Coalition for HIV Health and Safety (MCHHS), Kelly Doyle and Todd Heywood. We’re joined by Teresa Perrin whose son is serving a seven year sentence under Michigan’s HIV Disclosure laws. We’ve gathered here on this beautiful fall day to speak with State Representatives, Brian Banks, Winnie Brinks and Tom Cochran, about co sponsoring a bill that would amend the 1988 Michigan HIV Disclosure Laws, (MCL 333-5210), to place responsibility on the prosecutor to prove intent to transmit the virus, and that transmission actually occurred. Right now the law is vague and left to interpretation, it ignores the intent requirement, and while the CDC categorizes spitting and biting as low risk for transmission, persons can still be prosecuted for these actions. Nor does the present legislation take into account that in 2016 an HIV diagnosis is a chronic manageable condition.
Did you know that in Michigan you can be charged with a felony and jailed for 4 years or more for not disclosing your HIV status to a partner? An HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, and yet men and women in Michigan and around the country are sitting in prison for non disclosure, and in some cases placed on a sex offender list, even if they didn’t transmit the virus to the accuser, even if they used a condom, and even if they’re on medication that lowers the chances of transmitting the virus by up to 96%. Thirty three states have laws that explicitly focus on people living with HIV, the only infection that can become a felony, in spite of the fact that there are other diseases that are transmitted in the same manner, and can also lead to death if left untreated, for example, Hepatitis B. Iowa and Colorado are the only two states to have amended their laws to reflect the new science of HIV.
The US Department of Justice states, “While HIV specific state criminal laws may be viewed as initially well intentioned and necessary law enforcement tools, the vast majority do not reflect the current state of the science of HIV, and places additional burdens on individuals living with HIV.” According to the PLHIV Stigma Index Detroit, 88% of respondents don’t trust Michigan courts to give them a fair hearing if they are accused of not disclosing their HIV status to a partner. 62% felt that it’s reasonable not to get an HIV test for fear of prosecution. 46% felt that it was reasonable not to disclose their HIV status for fear of prosecution. And over half of the respondents felt that it was reasonable not to seek care out of fear of prosecution. Just because someone doesn’t disclose their HIV status doesn’t mean that they want to hurt their partner. The choking fear of stigma and unjust prosecution is silencing, and it’s stifling our efforts to completely eradicate this disease.
I was diagnosed HIV positive twenty-five years ago, on October 29, 1989, and given a year to live. Since 2000, I’ve been on ART (Antiretroviral Therapy), one pill a day. The virus is undetectable in my blood, which makes it unlikely that I can pass the virus to a partner during sexual intercourse. I will not deny the anguish that living with HIV causes, and has caused me over the years, but I have never held anyone but myself responsible for me contracting the virus. As I told Representative Cochran: To accuse a person of non disclosure, to jail them and ruin their life, while we no longer die from HIV if we’re in treatment with undetectable levels of the virus in our blood, seems to be cruel and unusual punishment to me.
All of the representatives or their aides that we spoke to on this day were gracious and receptive to our recommendations. The new bill that MCHHS crafted does not repeal the disclosure statutes all together. A key part of the new legislation states, “A person who acts with the specific intent to transmit the HIV infection to another person, and engages in conduct that poses a substantial risk of transmission, and actually causes HIV infection to the other person, is guilty of a crime punishable by not more than 1 year or a fine of not more than $1,000, or both.” When you take into consideration that HIV is no longer a death sentence, misdemeanor charges, rather than felony charges, are sufficient consequences for an intentional transmission of a treatable, infectious disease. If I might add, intending to infect someone with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus is very rare.
My personal feeling is that the laws should be repealed all together, but during a conference I attended earlier this year, I was told that because of the stigma, the animus surrounding HIV, prosecutors would use other legislation to prosecute offenders with the intent to infect, but with this legislation we are the gatekeepers. UNIFIED: HIV Health and Beyond joins The White House National HIV/AIDS Strategy to End HIV, to support this bill, because it aligns with the current science, and because we are dedicated to advancing prevention, providing access to healthcare, community research and above all, advocacy that we feel advances the dignity of people living with HIV.
My most memorable meeting of the day was at the Capital offices of the primary sponsor of the bill, the Honorable Jon Hoadley of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Representative Hoadley is a formidable champion dedicated to modernizing the Michigan HIV Disclosure laws. He would like to have at least thirteen co sponsors for the legislation before he introduces it. We’re already halfway there, thanks to the hard work of past advocates, and today we may have added four more. The MCHHS has another lobby day scheduled for November 11, 2016, and we need all of the advocates that we can muster to stand with us. This is a call to action for those interested in reforming our outmoded, unjust HIV Criminalization Laws, to come on out and join us in Lansing, Michigan on November 11, 2016, in the gilded halls of the Michigan State Capital building. Todd Heywood, the Policy Director for MCHHS encourages us to, “Take responsibility to empower ourselves to protect ourselves and our partner.” For more information about the next Lobby Day contact Todd at, Todd@MCHHS.info, or call 517-899-6182.