HIV exposure law unjustly applies sex offender status, advocates sayPublished on Thursday, 28 January 2016 16:18
As the deadline loomed for Aaliyah to send out notices of her sex-offender status, she had two choices.
She could stay at Covenant House with a roof over her head and a structured environment geared toward helping her turn her life around. But if she couldn’t find the $1,200 to pay for the notices, she could be sent to prison.
If she left, Aaliyah would have to couch surf or find some rent money, but it would reset the 21-day notification clock, putting off the threat of jail for another few weeks.
She chose to leave.
“I can’t blame her,” said Jim Kelly, director of the Covenant House, the homeless shelter where Aaliyah was staying.
Aaliyah is not the woman’s real name. She and Kelly spoke to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune on the condition that her name not be used.
She is not a child predator, an image that often comes to mind with the term “sex offender.” Aaliyah, 22, was convicted of “attempted intentional exposure to AIDS virus,” a controversial statute that Kelly and other advocates say is cruel, medically archaic and dangerous for public health.
Aaliyah didn’t expose anyone to the virus. Police arrested her during an undercover prostitution sting. Showing up to the date without condoms, an allegation she disputes, was enough for Louisiana State Police to charge her and get a guilty plea.
While about half of U.S. states have some criminal statute regarding sexual exposure to the human immunodeficiency virus, Louisiana is one of only nine states that require those convicted to register as sex offenders alongside rapists and child pornographers, according to the New York-based advocacy group Center for HIV Law & Policy.
Iowa lawmakers, citing in part the lack of evidence that registration did anything to discourage the spread of HIV, recently became the first state in the country to repeal its sex-offender provision for those convicted on exposure charges.
Aaliyah’s case shows how the law can force those convicted under it into impossible situations that are both bad for the individual and bad for public safety, Kelly said.
Under the rules, whenever sex offenders in Louisiana change addresses, they have 21 days to notify the community through newspaper ads and postcards disclosing their status, sent to every residential address in the immediate area. The costs, borne by the offender, can be considerable, but a loophole provides a way around them for those willing to live on the move.
Every time an offender moves the 21-day deadline resets.
That’s why, Aaliyah said, she left Covenant House. Previous rounds of notification had bled her dry, she said, and the training program the shelter had helped her get into only pays a small stipend for the first several weeks. She had no way to pay the $1,200 notification bill, she said.
The New Orleans Police Department, which enforces the sex-offender registration rules, would make no exception or allowance for a payment plan.
Kelly ultimately stepped in to pay Aaliyah’s registration fees so she could move back into Covenant House’s structured environment, but he expressed frustration that nobody in the system was willing to apply common sense to her case.
“I mean really, what are we doing here?” said Kelly. “We are taking a young girl, who has no job and knows no way to make money other than selling her body, and we are telling her she had better come up with $1,200 quick. What do they expect her do? Really?”
Asked whether the Police Department’s hardline stance was serving public safety in this case, NOPD Commander Doug Eckert said that his job isn’t to interpret the rules, it is to enforce the rules on the books.
Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, said the state’s sex-offender registration requirements “have become so punitive that they are counterproductive to public safety.”
“Individual facts of particular cases should matter,” she said. “The Legislature has adopted so many bans and regulations that at this point it is virtually impossible for any person convicted of any sex offense to live on the grid in our community. It is extremely difficult to get a job or find housing, which causes people to cycle into homelessness. Homeless people cannot comply with the sex-offender registry because they have no permanent address and cannot afford the hundreds of dollars required to send out notification cards.
“So what happens? They live in our parks and under bridges, moving from place to place until finally they are arrested and put back in jail not because they are any actual threat to any of us, but for not registering.”
State legislators drafted the “exposure to AIDS virus” law in 1987 at the height of the AIDS panic, a time when the virus was poorly understood and often meant a death sentence for those who contracted it, said Mark Alain Dery an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Tulane University who runs the school’s AIDS clinic in New Orleans.
Since it was widely believed to be a “gay” virus at the time, supporting criminal punishments for those who carried it was an easy political decision to make, he said.
It was billed as a means to protect the public, he said, but it actually does the opposite. Since you can’t be prosecuted unless you’ve been diagnosed, the effect of the law is to discourage people from getting tested and sharing that information with sexual partners, Dery said.
The name of the criminal charge itself is inaccurate, he said. AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is not the name of the virus, it’s a medical condition caused by an advanced infection of the virus itself, HIV.
Medically, it’s also out of date, Dery said, and has been roundly condemned by a variety of medical groups, including the American Medical Association.
Although the disease can be fatal and highly transmissible if untreated, today’s medical treatment can all but eliminate the virus from a patient’s body, leaving them symptom-free. The viral load can be reduced to the point that the risk of passing it along is near zero, Dery said.
Kelly said the law, when applied to women in the sex industry, is also patently misogynistic.
“It is not right or just that Johns who purchase sex from young women like (Aaliyah) and are not held responsible for wearing condoms,” he said. “Johns should be held to at least the same standard as these vulnerable women who are forced to sell their bodies for cash.”
Kelly has hired an attorney to help Aaliyah fight her conviction, but the system that facilitated it remains in place.
“We’ve got to change this law,” Kelly said.
Source: The Times Picayune