Positive Justice Project Urges Rational Response to Prosecution of People Living with HIV

The Positive Justice Project, CHLP's coalition of legal and public health experts that represent people living with HIV, is speaking out against sensationalist media coverage of criminal charges that have been brought against an HIV-positive African American man in Buffalo.

(New York, April 27, 2011) – The Positive Justice Project, a coalition of legal and public health experts that represent people living with HIV, is speaking out against sensationalist media coverage of criminal charges that have been brought against an HIV-positive AfricanAmerican man in Buffalo.

Darryl Fortner, 20, who has no prior criminal record, has been charged with reckless endangerment for allegedly failing to disclose his HIV status to his sexual partners.

The Positive Justice Project urges journalists to consider the following in their coverage.

A wide range of health and human rights organizations, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, have condemned the criminal prosecution of people living with HIV for not disclosing their status. While these prosecutions often seem to protect the public health, they actually undermine public health initiatives by discouraging testing and fueling stigma. They also put HIV-positive people at high risk of unjust prosecution. President Obama's own National HIV/AIDS Strategy, released in 2010, questions the efficacy of such laws and calls for a comprehensive review of them.

"Rushing to judgment and demonizing a young black man on the basis of his HIV status has a horrible impact not only on people who already are diagnosed with HIV, but on all of those in my community who are afraid to get tested," said Kali Lindsey, a public policy expert at Harlem United and a person living with HIV. "No one is going to get tested for HIV if they think that knowing their status will land them in jail."

Fortner's arrest is one in a long line of cases across the country where HIV-positive persons, often African American, are facing criminal charges and disproportionately long sentences for otherwise-legal behavior on the basis of their HIV status. Intent to transmit or intent to expose others to HIV is rarely–if ever–a consideration in these cases, which typically turn into a credibility battle in which the person who has first discovered he or she is HIV positive is assumed to be dishonest.

"The over-reaction to this type of situation has no support in public health principles," said Terrance Moore, Associate Director of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities at the National Association of State and Territorial AIDS Directors.

On Wednesday, April 20, Fortner was charged with one count of reckless endangerment for allegedly not disclosing his HIV status prior to engaging in sexual conduct.

Journalists should keep in mind that to be charged under reckless endangerment in New York, one must have presented a "grave risk of death" to another person. HIV is no longer considered a death sentence, but rather a chronic disease.

"These laws and prosecutions continue to occur because people incorrectly believe that HIV is quickly and invariably fatal and as such should be treated differently than other sexually transmitted infections," said Vanessa Johnson, Deputy Executive Director of the National Association of People with AIDS. "That's just not the case. And until legislators, law enforcement officials, and prosecutors understand HIV in the 21st-century, these miscarriages of justice will continue to happen all over the country."

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The Positive Justice Project is the first coordinated national effort in the United States to address HIV criminalization, and the first multi-organizational and cross-disciplinary effort to do so. HIV criminalization has often resulted in gross human rights violations, including harsh sentencing for behaviors that pose little or no risk of HIV transmission.

For more information on the Positive Justice Project, go to http://www.hivlawandpolicy.org/public/initiatives/positivejusticeproject.

To see the Center for HIV Law and Policy's collection of resources on HIV criminalization, go to: http://www.hivlawandpolicy.org/resourceCategories/view/2

The Positive Justice Project has been made possible by generous support from the M.A.C. AIDS Fund, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the Henry van Ameringen Foundation and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. To learn more or join one of the Positive Justice Project working groups, email: pjp@hivlawandpolicy.org