HIV decriminalization stumbles in Georgia but advocates remain hopeful

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A bill reforming Georgia’s outdated HIV laws gained bipartisan support in a hyper-partisan atmosphere and came close to final passage during the legislative session this year.

But the legislation – Senate Bill 164 – stalled when an unrelated amendment was tacked on during the final day of the legislative session last month. 

Even though the bill didn’t pass, it moved further along the process than any other HIV reform effort in recent years. That leaves reform advocates encouraged that the bill will pass in 2022. 

“Sometimes in the work, we forget to celebrate. This was actually something to celebrate,” said Eric Paulk, deputy director of Georgia Equality. 

“It’s a good place for us to be going into 2022. It absolutely makes me hopeful that we will be able to pass a law in Georgia that protects people living with HIV from a law that is stuck in the 1980s and doesn’t realize the science and where we are around HIV in 2021,” he added.

Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, a Republican from Rome, introduced the legislation in February. The measure would require prosecutors to show a person charged with exposing someone to HIV through sex had an “intent to transmit HIV” and posed a “significant risk of transmission” based on current science. 

Current Georgia law makes it a crime for people living with HIV to have sex or donate blood without disclosing their status, regardless of whether they intend to transmit HIV or pose any risk. It’s a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. State law also criminalizes spitting at or using bodily fluids on law enforcement or corrections officers by a person with HIV, an offense that can carry up to 20 years in prison.

Hufstetler’s bill removes criminal penalties for people with HIV who share needles, donate blood or spit at or use bodily fluids on police and corrections officers. The proposal also changes state law to refer to people “living with HIV” instead of “an HIV infected person.”

The legislation keeps intentional HIV exposure as a felony, but it lowers the maximum prison sentence from 10 years to five.

State Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, a Republican from Rome. (Photo courtesy Georgia Senate)

‘This is really hopeful’

In early March, Hufstetler’s bill passed the Senate with a 50-2 vote. On March 31, the House unanimously passed the measure 171-0.

But House lawmakers added language about prescription drugs before passing the bill. The amendment had nothing to do with the state’s HIV laws and Senate lawmakers objected. Since the House changes came on the last day of the legislative session, there wasn’t time for a conference committee to hash out their differences. 

The legislation will resurface in the House when lawmakers return to session in January. That will allow reform advocates to continue lobbying for the removal of felony penalties left in Hufstetler’s bill, Paulk said.

“I know advocates want to make some amendments around removing the felony penalties. This does give folks an opportunity over the next several months to really work around perhaps making those amendments,” he said.

Activists have been working to reform the state’s HIV laws since 2013. In 2020, the House passed an HIV decriminalization bill – sponsored by Rep. Deborah Silcox, a Republican from Sandy Springs – that stalled when the legislative session was suspended during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2017, Republican lawmakers created a study committee to examine the state’s HIV laws.

Reform advocates point to Virginia where Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law on April 1 a bill that reformed that state’s HIV laws. But the bill kept the punishment for HIV transmission through sex as a felony, according to the Washington Blade. 

Northam is a Democrat, and both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly are controlled by Democrats. In Georgia – which has a Republican governor and GOP control of the legislature – HIV reform legislation passed. That leaves Paulk “hopeful” about the future of the bill.

“To be doing this reform work in Georgia where we don’t have control of anything, it is a testament to the work that has been done over the past several years. Folks have been working on this for a long time,” he said.

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