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Tennessee judge, under fire, pulls offer to trade shorter jail sentences for vasectomies

A judge in central Tennessee has withdrawn a controversial order offering reduced jail time to inmates who volunteer for sterilization procedures after the plan drew a wave of criticism from health officials, prosecutors and civil rights attorneys.

General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield’s order promised inmates in White County, Tenn., 30-day credits toward their sentences if they received vasectomies or birth control implants. The hope, Benningfield said, was to break a “vicious cycle” of repeat drug offenders passing through his courtroom who could not find jobs or afford child support.

Originally issued in May, the highly unorthodox order received national media attention after a local news station reported on it last week. During the roughly two months the order was in place, 32 women received implants of the hormone device Nexplanon, and 38 men signed up to receive vasectomies, according to NewsChannel 5.

In a one-page court filing Thursday, the judge rescinded the order. He wrote that anyone who signed up for the procedures and took “serious and considered steps toward their rehabilitation” would still get the credit, but the plan was otherwise canceled.

“I wasn’t on a crusade,” Benningfield told the Times Free Press on Thursday. “I don’t have a ‘mission.’ I thought I could help a few folks, get them thinking and primarily help children.”

Benningfield claimed that he came up with the plan after consulting with the Tennessee Department of Health, and told local media last week that the department was performing the sterilization procedures free of charge.

But a spokeswoman for the health department disputed that account, telling The Washington Post that state health officials opposed such a policy and played no role in the judge’s decision.

On Thursday, Benningfield continued to assert that the department was involved. He said in his filing that he was forced to rescind the order because the department had decided “it will no longer offer free vasectomies to White County inmates” and “will not provide the free Nexplanon implant” in exchange for credits toward their sentences.

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

Health department spokeswoman Shelley Walker told The Post last week that 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. She said the department had given free contraception to just six White County inmates since the beginning of the year and had “not facilitated provision of any vasectomies for any incarcerated individuals.”

“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 said. “We do not support any policy that could compel incarcerated individuals to seek any particular health services from us or from other providers.”

District Attorney Bryant Dunaway spoke out against the judge’s order after it drew attention, instructing his staff not to take part in the plan “in any way.” And this week, two Tennessee lawmakers called on the state attorney general to weigh in on the legality of the judge’s action, as Nashville Public Radio reported.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee also voiced opposition to the order, calling it unconstitutional and saying judges should not interfere with a person’s ability to procreate.

The organization said in a statement Thursday: “Though the program was technically ‘voluntary,’ spending even a few days in jail can lead to the loss of jobs, child custody, housing and vehicles. To the individual faced with these collateral consequences of time spent behind bars, a choice between sterilization or contraception and a reduced jail sentence is not much of a choice at all. The judge’s order crossed a constitutional line and we are pleased that he rescinded it.”