Bipartisan legislation was announced by two lawmakers in Jefferson City Monday. Representatives Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, and Tracy McCreery, D-Olivette, have pre-filed bills to alter Missouri’s HIV-specific criminal codes and change public health laws related to addiction and needle and syringe access.
Rehder was joined by a representative from McCreery’s office and several advocacy groups who support the legislation at a news conference at the state Capitol. The bills were filed last year but failed to advance beyond the committee level.
Rehder and McCreery’s measures modify the laws regarding unlawful actions by persons knowingly infected with communicable diseases, including HIV.
The non-profit KC Care Health Center in Kansas City, which handles underserved patients, notes the majority of HIV-specific criminal codes were passed before advances such as antiretroviral therapy (ART) which reduces HIV transmission risk. The organization contends most of the laws do not reflect HIV prevention measures that reduce transmission risk such as condom use and ART. KC Care also states that if the virus is suppressed to undetectable levels, the HIV positive person has zero risk of transmission.
Empower Missouri, a non-profit focused on low-income people, claims current law rewards ignorance of one’s own status and discourages being tested for communicable diseases.
Both KC Care and Empower Missouri have endorsed the bills from Rehder and McCreery.
The legislation itself reduces criminal penalties for knowingly exposing other individuals to a communicable disease while the language “act in a reckless manner” has been eliminated. Punishment for knowingly exposing someone to HIV who doesn’t contract the disease would be lowered from a Class B to a Class C felony while the same infraction in which the person does contract the ailment is lowered from a Class A to Class B felony. Imprisonment for a Class A felony is 10 to 30 years or life, 5 to 15 years for a Class B and not to exceed 7 years for a Class C felony.
In addition, Rehder says her bill would clear the way for those who are HIV positive to be organ donors. It also would cover all serious infectious or communicable diseases such as Hepatitis C in addition to HIV.
Rehder said the changes in the legislation this year came after extensive discussions with local prosecutors. She said charges of knowingly exposing other individuals to a communicable disease often boiled down to a “he said, she said” situation in court.
“One gentleman that testified last year in committee, he said that he even had it tattooed on himself, and his partner said that she did not know,” said Rehder. “He ended up going to prison for many years.”
Missouri has had laws in place since the early 1990s that criminalize HIV exposure. According to a joint release from Rehder and McCreery, Missouri’s laws include exposures which research shows have no exposure risk, including transmission through saliva.
LaTrischa Miles, a Treatment Adherence Supervisor with KC Care, said HIV positive people in intimate relationships with HIV negative individuals often suffer abuse.
“The person that is negative can go to the police,” said Miles. “They can threaten them in ways to make them stay with them and effectively really shut the person down.”
She added that the HIV positive person is generally not looked upon as credible in cases where accusations are being made and will suffer legal consequences as a result.
Brennan Keiser with the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition says the criminal punishment doled out to those who are HIV positive is far too harsh.
“No other disease is treated with the same severity as HIV,” said Keiser. “More people die of another communicable disease, the flu, than HIV. Yet we don’t go around investigating who passed it to whom and charging them for murder.”
Rehder and McCreery filed similar bills last year that change the criminal codes for communicable diseases. Rehder’s measure was well received in committee last year but failed to advance because of its late arrival in the legislative session. McCreery’s bill also received a hearing late in the session and died in committee. Both lawmakers refiled their measures Monday.
In addition, Rehder resubmitted a proposal for changes to laws pertaining to needle and syringe exchange. It would exempt health care providers from criminal penalties for distributing hypodermic needles or syringes. She said the opposition wrongly assumed the measure enable drug users.
“We’re not enabling because no one who isn’t already intending to use a needle isn’t going to use one because it’s free,” Rehder said.
She pointed out in the news conference that it’s important for those who inject drugs to get a clean syringe to guard against spreading HIV or Hepatitis C. She said doing so also puts the user in contact with a medically-educated professional who can provide them with information on where and how to get help when that person decides to seek treatment.
Last year’s bill passed the House with wide bipartisan support but failed to move in the Senate.
The legislative session begins on January 9. Rehder and McCreery are senior members in the Missouri House who’ll be serving their fourth an final two-year terms.
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