Lawmakers pre-file HIV criminal code bills

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JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, and staff members for Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis, pre-filed bills intended to update the state's outdated HIV-specific criminal codes, as well as to improve public health laws concerning addiction and needle and syringe access.

According to a news release, Missouri is one of 32 states with laws that criminalize HIV exposure. These laws include criminalizing transmission of HIV through saliva, although the virus cannot be spread that way. Because of this, many people shy away from getting tested for HIV.

"The Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Justice have both said HIV specific laws deter people from getting tested," Rehder said. "It really gets down to the 'he said, she said' where it's very difficult for [these departments]. It's a very gray area."

HIV laws haven't been re-written since the 1980s, the peak of the HIV epidemic. Because the law hasn't been revisited, lots of gray areas remain. 

"Right now, the way that our law is written, I think we're kind of dis-incentivizing people to even know their status if they have HIV or not," said Emily O'Laughlin, administrative assistant to McCreery. "If we reduce the punishment associated with those laws, I think that it would empower a lot of people to know their status and thus you have the chain of reaction of when you know you're infected [you can treat yourself in many ways]. It will impact the state as whole because a lot more people would, hopefully, be willing to learn their status. 

Rehder and McCreery's bills intend to modernize HIV laws in the last legislative session. Both bills received favorable feedback from the Health and Mental Health Committee and will be brought forward once again in 2019.

"The bottom line is we want people to get tested, know their status and get treatment," Rehder said. "The Department of Justice, along with many other national health organizations called for states to reform their HIV specific laws many years ago because they run counter to public health best practices."