Do Criminal Laws Influence HIV Risk Behavior? An Empirical Trial. Scott Burris et al., Arizona State Law Journal (2007)

Research and Journal Articles

This study sought to determine whether the presence of HIV-specific criminal laws influenced sexual behaviors that pose a risk of HIV transmission and found no evidence that they did. The study examined Illinois and New York because they exhibit contrasting legal situations. Illinois has an HIV-specific law explicitly requiring disclosure by HIV-positive persons. New York has no HIV-specific law. This study looked for evidence that differences in law and beliefs about the law influence condom use in anal or vaginal sex.

In this study, 490 people at a perceived elevated risk of HIV were interviewed, 248 in Chicago and 242 in New York City. Approximately half in each state were men who have sex with men ("MSM") and half were injecting drug users ("IDUs"). One hundred sixty two subjects reported known HIV infection (Chicago 58; New York City 104). Three hundred twenty-eight reported being HIV negative or not knowing their HIV status.

Individuals that lived in Illinois, with a criminal law explicitly regulating sexual behavior of the HIV-infected, were little different in their self-reported sexual behavior from people in New York, a state without such a law. Individuals who believed the law required HIV positive persons to practice safer sex or disclose their status reported being just as risky in their sexual behavior as those who did not. The data do not support the proposition that passing a law prohibiting unsafe sex or requiring disclosure of infection influences people's normative beliefs about risky sex. Most people in the study believed that it was wrong to expose others to the virus and right to disclose infection to their sexual partners. These convictions were not influenced by the respondents' beliefs about the law or whether they lived in a state with such a law or not.

Burris' findings here are consistent with other completed studies, all of which, to date, have failed to find any evidence that criminal law has an influence on sexual risk behavior. Given concerns about possible negative effects of criminal law, including increased stigma and reluctance to cooperate with health authorities, the findings suggest caution in using criminal law as a behavior change intervention for people who are HIV positive.