The Center for HIV Law and Policy (CHLP), the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC), and the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable (NVHR) have released “Punishment is Not a Public Health Strategy: The Criminalization of Viral Hepatitis in the United States” – a fact sheet on viral hepatitis criminalization laws throughout the country.
More than a dozen U.S. states have laws criminalizing perceived or actual exposure to viral hepatitis. Many of these states also restrict patients from accessing curative treatments and limit the availability of syringe services programs (SSPs) for active drug users. These restrictions, in part, allow hepatitis C to remain the nation’s deadliest infectious disease. Between 2004 and 2014, the rate of acute hepatitis C infections more than doubled nationwide.
As the rate of viral hepatitis infections continues to climb, more states are actually making the problem worse by introducing discriminatory legislation that criminalizes viral hepatitis exposure. In some states like Ohio, exposure to the bodily fluids of someone with viral hepatitis is already a felony and carries a three-year prison sentence. This year, South Dakota introduced legislation that would have punished exposure to hepatitis C with up to fifteen years of incarceration. Although this legislation did not pass, it is indicative of what may be an increasing push toward the criminalization of viral hepatitis.
“These discriminatory laws are out of sync with basic legal principles and inconsistent with current knowledge about what works to promote public health,” said Kate Boulton, an attorney at the Center for HIV Law and Policy who leads CHLP’s criminal justice strategy. “None of these laws take actual intent to do harm into consideration. And many of these laws even criminalize behavior that poses little or no risk of harm to others.”
”The War on Drugs maximizes the harms facing people who use drugs by criminalizing their behaviors.” Said Mike Selick, Hepatitis C Training and Policy Manager at Harm Reduction Coalition. “Laws that criminalize hypothetical exposure to viral hepatitis will similarly increase the harms people face. We need to create an environment where people who use drugs are supported to get tested and connected to treatment rather than creating more barriers to engagement.”
“Laws that criminalize even unintentional exposure to viral hepatitis can only discourage individuals from getting tested and seeking treatment for the disease,” said Tina Broder, interim executive director of NVHR. “All individuals living with viral hepatitis deserve access to comprehensive treatment and harm reduction services; criminalizing people’s health status undermines our ability to solve this growing public health crisis.”