Punishing Disease: An Interview with Trevor Hoppe

Punishing Disease
In his new book, Trevor Hoppe examines the intersection of the criminal justice system & HIV and other infectious diseases
by Chip Alfred

As a grad student at University of Michigan, Trevor Hoppe was working on a syllabus for a class on HIV, including a day on criminalization. “Thirty years into the epidemic, I thought there would be seven books already on the topic,” Hoppe tells A&U. “I was really surprised to find out that there was nothing out there for a broad audience, and this seemed to be a critically important issue facing people living with HIV.”

In November 2017, after years of research and interviews, Hoppe, now assistant professor of Sociology at SUNY Albany, published Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of Sickness. I caught up with Hoppe, thirty-four, at the William Way LGBT Community Center in Philadelphia, just after he embarked on a twelve-city book launch tour, accompanied by panel discussions with local HIV criminalization experts and advocates.

Chip Alfred: You’ve taken a different approach to the book tour, right, Trevor?
Trevor Hoppe: I think it’s really important to acknowledge that I am not the only expert on this issue. That’s why in Philly I invited Ronda Goldfein (AIDS Law Project of PA), Teresa Sullivan (PWN-USA and Philadelphia FIGHT), and Chris Bartlett (William Way) to join me on the panel. They are doing the hard work of implementing the big ideas and making change happen.

What should our readers expect to see in the book?
The first half of the book looks at public health and the way in which public health has contributed to or exacerbated criminalization or punishment when it comes to infectious disease. The second half of the book looks at the criminal justice system. How did these criminal laws targeting people living with HIV get on the books? How are they being enforced in a criminal court and who’s being impacted by these laws?

On a broader scale, what do you see happening with HIV criminalization in the U.S.?
I see two things happening. On the West Coast, states like California and Colorado are moving to repeal their HIV-specific felony laws. I think in both cases there were big victories in those states. Then I see states like Tennessee and Iowa, and on the East Coast and in the Midwest, that are moving to add other diseases to their felony laws. Not just HIV but particularly, hepatitis. Also in Iowa, meningitis, tuberculosis and other diseases. So, I think we’re at a tipping point where we could see one of two things happen—more punishment, or less punishment when it comes to disease.

But wasn’t Iowa seen as a victory back in 2014, when the first HIV Is Not a Crime Conference was held there?
Many advocates celebrated that change and I get why they saw it as a victory. It reduced the penalties in the most harmless cases to resemble more reasonable levels. And that was the best that they thought they could do with the legislature. But ultimately, I think what you’re seeing in states like Iowa and Tennessee is that the notion of using the criminal justice system to respond to infectious disease is becoming more pervasive and more entrenched in our society.

What do you hope people will learn from your book?
So, I hope that people come to the book wanting to learn more about how the criminal justice system specifically relates to HIV because I think that’s a layer to the conversation. Mass incarceration is an important issue. The racial inequalities that it has produced are definitely important, but I think that there are other conversations to have as well.

What are some of those other conversations you’d like to hear?
What I would like people to walk away with is questions, debates, conversations with their friends or their colleagues. Is the criminal justice system the right tool for controlling disease? My perspective is, no. But I think that at least, if people come away asking themselves that question, I think there’s been progress made.

Anything else you’d like to add?
The thing I always say when I speak to the LGBT press especially is, I think many gay men fear the boogeyman in their heads, which is the guy out there who is going to try to infect them. I think it’s important to remember that the boogeyman is not really the defendant that’s typical in these cases. So, I think it’s important to take a hard look at who actually is being punished and look at those cases rather than this imaginary, shadowy figure who you think is going to infect you.

For more information about Trevor Hoppe or to schedule an appearance in your city, visit www.trevorhoppe.com.

A&U welcomes your HIV criminalization story ideas or suggestions. Please contact Chip Alfred, Editor at Large, at [email protected].