Earlier this month, former college athlete Michael Johnson was released from prison after being incarcerated for five-years for exposing sexual partners to HIV. He was originally given a 30-year sentence. While we are encouraged by Johnson’s release, it’s important to acknowledge that he should not have been criminalized in the first place.
34 states - including Georgia - have laws on the books that criminalize people based on their HIV status through criminalizing otherwise lawful behaviors or imposing harsher sentencing on people living with HIV (PLHIV). These laws are outdated and fail to incorporate best medical practice and modern prevention strategies. While we know that PLHIV who are in treatment and maintain an undetectable viral load cannot transmit HIV and that taking a daily pill can reduce someone’s risk of contracting HIV by 90%, in most states the only defense a PLHIV has against prosecution is disclosing their status. Further, some of these laws criminalize behaviors like spitting and biting that carry no risk of transmitting the virus.
HIV criminalization laws - like the ones used to prosecute Michael Johnson - are archaic, do nothing to protect or advance public health, promote harmful misinformation about HIV, and increase stigma. Government spending should be used to fund HIV prevention programs focused on testing and linkage to care, not prosecuting people based on their health status.
Michael Johnson, Georgians, and people nationwide should be governed by laws that reflect evidence-based, scientific and medical knowledge. It’s time for states to modernize their criminal codes and stop using the prosecutorial system in place of effective public health programming.