In the wake of the HIV epidemic that began in the early 1980s, lawmakers throughout the country moved to criminalize behavior that threatened to spread the virus, enacting laws that imposed sometimes heavy fines and jail terms for infected individuals who failed to tell sex partners about their illness.
Florida, Tennessee and Washington were the first states to enact HIV-related criminal laws, in 1986. A 1988 report from the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic recommended that states establish such laws and many did. At present, more than 30 have HIV-related criminal laws.
But now that new therapies have greatly lowered the risks of transmission, advocates for those with HIV say these laws are too harsh and should be revised to reduce penalties, or be repealed.
While the laws were initially intended to help lower the rate of transmission and deter "risky behavior," according to the commission report, recent studies have shown that the laws discourage testing, reduce disclosure and otherwise work against public health efforts. The Department of Justice in 2014 issued a guide for states to reform HIV-specific laws so that they are informed by current knowledge of HIV transmission, in addition to help prevent and treat HIV. While the number of new cases of HIV has remained stable (about 50,000 per year) between 2005 and 2014, gay and bisexual men as well as African-Americans continue to be most affected. The incidence of HIV among black and Latino men who have sex with men increased over the same period, the result being that the laws disproportionately affect them.
See how much you know about laws that potentially make living with HIV a crime.
An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the debate over retaining or rolling back criminal laws on HIV transmission. It has been revised to say that while the laws remain on the books in many states, recent studies by government agencies and others suggest that they are counterproductive.