“Overcriminalization” and HIV

By Scott Burris

The concept of “overcriminalization” is gaining traction across the political spectrum.

The Heritage Foundation, which has a website devoted to the phenomenon, defines it as “the trend in America – and particularly in Congress – to use the criminal law to ‘solve’ every problem, punish every mistake (instead of making proper use of civil penalties), and coerce Americans into conforming their behavior to satisfy social engineering objectives.”   Others, like Michelle Alexander, drop the Ayn Rand tones and focus on mass incarceration as racialized social control. (My colleagues and I once calculated that African American males can expect to spend on average 3.09 years in prison or jail over their lifetime.) Douglas Husak argues that we need a theory of criminalization to help us get less of it.

One of the best examples of criminal law rushing in where angels fear to tread is the criminalization of HIV exposure. From the start, there was reason to fear that these laws would not reduce HIV transmission, and might exacerbate stigma and social hostility towards people with HIV. There was concern they might be used selectively, or just randomly.

This summer, the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law advised states to repeal or abstain from enacting such laws.  The Commission drew on a set of background papers that reviewed the extent of the phenomenon globally and addressed the argument that these laws are justified by moral values even if they are ineffective.

In this country, the President’s National AIDS Strategy suggested states reconsider these laws, but no laws have been repealed and prosecutions continue.  Fortunately, so does research, and it continues to show that these laws are not promoting public health. This week, the American Journal of Public Health published a new PHLR-funded study by Carol Galletley. This video sums up her findings:

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