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Judge to inmates: Get sterilized and I’ll shave off jail time

This story has been updated with a statement from the Tennessee Department of Health.

A judge in central Tennessee is hoping to help repeat offenders “make something of themselves” by offering them a highly unorthodox and probably unconstitutional deal: reduced jail time in exchange for sterilization operations.

Under a standing order issued by General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield, inmates in White County, Tenn., can receive 30 days’ credit toward their jail time if they volunteer for vasectomies or contraceptive implants, as NewsChannel 5 reported Thursday.

The order came down quietly in May, and already dozens of inmates have sought to take advantage of it. Thirty-two women have received implants of the hormone device Nexplanon, and 38 men have signed up to receive vasectomies, according to NewsChannel 5.

Inmates in White County were also reportedly offered a two-day credit on their sentence if they completed a neonatal class designed to educate them about the dangers of having children while using drugs.

Benningfield, who was first elected to the bench in 1998, told NewsChannel 5 that he issued the order after consulting with the Tennessee Department of Health.

But health department spokeswoman Shelley Walker said the department played no role in the judge’s decision and opposed such a policy.

“Neither the Tennessee Department of Health nor the White County Health Department was involved in developing any policy to offer sentence reductions to those convicted of crimes in exchange for their receiving family planning services,” Walker told The Washington Post in an email. “We do not support any policy that could compel incarcerated individuals to seek any particular health services from us or from other providers.”

Walker disputed NewsChannel 5’s report, which suggested that the health department had either performed or offered free birth control procedures to 70 White County inmates.

She said the department does offer free, voluntary family planning and drug awareness education to inmates but not as part of any quid pro quo for reduced jail time. Since the beginning of the year, six White County inmates have received contraception from the department as part of those efforts, Walker said. She stressed that the department has “not facilitated provision of any vasectomies for any incarcerated individuals.”

Benningfield said he issued his order in hopes of breaking a “vicious cycle” of drug offenders passing through his courtroom who could not find jobs or afford child support.

“I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to be burdened with children,” he said. “This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee cried foul on the order, saying judges should not play a role in a person’s ability to procreate.

“Offering a so-called ‘choice’ between jail time and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional,” Hedy Weinberg, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement Thursday. “Such a choice violates the fundamental constitutional right to reproductive autonomy and bodily integrity by interfering with the intimate decision of whether and when to have a child, imposing an intrusive medical procedure on individuals who are not in a position to reject it.”

Nexplanon is the brand name for an etonogestrel birth control device about the size of a matchstick that is implanted in a woman’s arm, providing 99 percent effective contraception for up to four years. A vasectomy is a common surgical operation that prevents sperm from reaching a man’s urethra. The procedure is considered permanent but can be reversed in some circumstances through surgery.

In Tennessee, heroin-related arrests have surged in recent years as the state has struggled to respond to growing opioid addiction and contain an influx of illegal drugs, as the Tennessean reported in May. Crimes involving pills and heroin have risen, according to state health officials, especially in the eastern part of the state and rural communities such as White County, which has a population of 25,000.

Benningfield’s order has drawn fire from District Attorney Bryant Dunaway, whose district includes White County and Benningfield’s court. Dunaway, who was elected on a platform of cracking down on repeat offenders, told NewsChannel 5 that he has instructed his staff not to take part in the order “in any way.”

“Those decisions are personal in nature, and I think that’s just something that the court system should not encourage nor mandate,” he said. ” … An 18-year-old gets this done, it can’t get reversed and then impacts the rest of their life.”

Joe Patrice, a lawyer and writer at the legal blog Above the Law, called Benningfield’s order “backward” and “archaic” in a post Thursday:

Judge Benningfield wants to keep criminals from having criminal babies. Hell, he probably has some phrenology training and knows a genetically predisposed criminal baby when he sees it. Whatever his real motivation, he wants to use the stick of the state to coerce people into trading their reproductive capacity for a month. Which many are going to do, because making stupid decisions because they feel cornered and desperate is kind of how they got to this point in the first place.

Benningfield could not be reached for comment Thursday. In his interview with NewsChannel 5, he predicted that his order would face challenges.

“I understand it won’t be entirely successful, but if you reach two or three people, maybe that’s two or three kids not being born under the influence of drugs,” he said. “I see it as a win-win.”

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