On July 27, Governor J.B. Pritzker repealed the state’s 32-year-old HIV criminalization statute—a law that overwhelmingly impacted Black people in Cook County—making Illinois just the second state in the nation to make such a sweeping change.
The bill to repeal the state’s HIV criminal statute was sponsored by Senator Robert Peters, a Democrat from Chicago who says he was inspired to take up the issue by HIV activists including the Illinois HIV Action Alliance and AIDS Foundation Chicago. State representative Carol Ammons, a Democrat from Champaign-Urbana, was the lead House sponsor of the bill.
Alongside Peters’s bill, Pritzker also signed legislation to update the state’s infertility insurance law, to allow married couples to choose gender-neutral marriage certificates, and to allow already married people to update their certificates.
Texas is the only other state to have outright repealed its HIV criminalization statute. Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, California, and Iowa have significantly updated their HIV-related criminal statutes, limiting the severity of penalties and often requiring intent to transmit the virus.
Illinois’s HIV criminalization bill was originally passed in 1989 at the height of the AIDS crisis and has been been harshly criticized since its inception as discriminatory, anti-science, and homophobic. Research shows that laws like Illinois’s— which up until this week made exposing someone to HIV without their knowledge a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison—actually discourage testing for HIV and make people who carry the virus less likely to seek treatment.
“The criminalization of HIV has harmed communities in our home state for decades. It has done nothing other than spread fear and stigma, and it discouraged people from getting tested or knowing their status,” the Illinois HIV Action Alliance said in a press release, later adding, “We are very relieved to see this destructive law has finally been stricken from the books.”
A Chicago Reader investigation into the statute and its origins—undertaken in partnership with Injustice Watch as part of The Circuit, a joint project from Injustice Watch and Better Government Association, with the civic tech consulting firm DataMade—details that the law in Cook County was overwhelmingly weaponized against Black people. More specifically, an analysis of roughly 60 cases, out of the 80 prosecutors cite, shows that Black men make up more than two-thirds of the people charged under this law; and across gender lines 75 percent of those charged are Black.
“In our continued efforts to shape a safer and more inclusive Illinois, my administration is on a mission to lift up and empower those who too often have been overlooked or forgotten,” Pritzker said in a press release. “Today, the State of Illinois is taking another step to advance that mission.”
But for people like Jimmy Amutavi, the man at the center of the Reader’s investigation, whose name and face were published in news organizations across the country after he was wrongfully accused in 2016 of withholding his HIV status from partners, this victory feels hollow.
The repeal won’t change what happened to him—he lost jobs, had to change careers, and faces harassment from an accuser he and his attorney say was retaliating for a failed relationship. And the articles about the charges against him, which were eventually dropped, live forever on the Internet with scant mention of his exoneration.
Another man charged under the law, former Cicero police officer John Savage, told the Chicago Tribune that his life was similarly upended after he was charged in 2013. The Tribune reports that Savage eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, and left his career in law enforcement and the state of Illinois.
Amutavi tells the Reader that he has mixed feelings about the law’s repeal. He recognizes how important this is for people living with HIV going forward. But choking up, he says he’s angry that people like him and Savage have suffered under the law in the first place.
“I don’t know if I’m happy, because of the guilt that I feel that some of us are not here to see this,” he says. “Some of us continue to suffer.” v