Pennsylvania bill ending felony charge for HIV-related prostitution would reduce stigma

PHILADELPHIA (Feb. 28, 2024) – Today, on HIV is Not a Crime Awareness Day, State Sen. Vincent Hughes, State Rep. Ben Waxman, and State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta are circulating co-sponsorship memos for a bill that would remove Pennsylvania’s felony penalty for HIV-related prostitution. (Sen. Hughes memo; Rep Waxman & Kenyatta memo)

HIV criminalization does not make anyone safer, but reinforces stigma and undermines public health goals. The three legislators, known for their advocacy on behalf of people living with HIV, intend to remove this stigmatizing law from the criminal code.

The bill would ensure that Pennsylvania criminal law does not discriminate against people living with HIV and could prevent the state from being subjected to costly litigation. On Feb. 15, 2024, the Department of Justice filed suit against the State of Tennessee and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by enforcing the state’s law which similarly enhances the penalties for people living with HIV who are charged with prostitution.

Removing the felony charge removes the last relic of HIV criminalization laws in Pennsylvania, one of nine states still subjecting people living with HIV to harsher penalties if charged with prostitution. In recent years other states including Georgia, Nevada, and California have modernized or repealed their prostitution laws.

HIV criminalization laws began to appear across the nation more than 30 years ago, and advocates have been pushing for reform ever since.

“Criminalizing HIV with a sentencing enhancement is not a public health solution to ending the HIV epidemic,” said Waheedah Shabazz-El, a woman living with HIV who is a longtime activist in issues relating to HIV and women and a board member of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.

September 2023 poll from Susquehanna Polling and Research shows that a majority of Pennsylvanians believe that the state’s HIV laws should be updated to reflect modern science. According to the poll, 76% of Pennsylvanians believe that current HIV laws should be modernized and updated. And 79% believe that people living with HIV should receive the health and treatment they need, rather than face criminal charges that discriminate and discourage proper testing, treatment, and disclosure.