TN judge reducing sentences of jail inmates who get vasectomies or anti-pregnancy implants

General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield of Sparta has authorized 30-day sentence reductions for male inmates at the White County Jail who agree to free vasectomies in White County and women who agree to receive free Nexplanon implants, which prevent pregnancies for up to four years.

WTVF TV in Nashville, which first reported on the judge’s order, signed in May, says 32 women and 38 men have since signed up for the procedures and the accompanying sentence reduction.

“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. I see it as a win, win,” (Benningfield) added.

Inmates in the White County jail were also given two days credit toward their jail sentence if they complete a State of Tennessee, Department of Health Neonatal Syndrome Education Program. The class aimed to educate those who are incarcerated about the dangers of having children while under the influence of drugs.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee, says the “coerced contraception” program is unconstitutional.

“Offering a so-called ‘choice’ between jail time and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional. 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. Judges play an important role in our community – overseeing individuals’ childbearing capacity should not be part of that role.”

In a statement, Benningfield says he initiated the program after discussions with officials of the state Department of Health and defends his move. The statement was posted by the Sparta Expositor (HERE). An excerpt (with a couple of typos corrected):

Participation is strictly voluntary. No one is forced to participate. lt is never ordered as part of a sentence. lt is only available to those sentenced out of the General Sessions Court which means none of those to whom it is available are serving sentences for serious felony offenses. It is in no way a eugenic program. Sterilization is never involved and is not an option as all procedures offered are reversible. No male under 21 may participate and can only have the procedure after a full physical exam and must wait 30 days before having said procedure. The health department provides these services free of charge and to my understanding they are freely available to the public.

The primary purpose in this was to try to reduce the number of children born drug dependent or suffering the consequences of in vitro drug exposure. I thought it would also reduce the number of children who would eventually wind up in foster care. I hoped inmates, while thinking soberly, might be encouraged to take control of their lives, reproductive and othenruise, rather than suffering the consequences of allowing life to just happen to them. Unplanned and unwanted children and the resulting obligations complicate their lives and make their reintegration into society more difficult.

I have been amazed at the attention this decision has brought about. That same month I made this decision publicly in open court in the presence of the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office and several members of the local bar. I never received an objection from any of them. I had hoped to encourage and reward inmates for acting responsibly and maturely. The offer is in no way coercive – | do not know who accepts it – and is one of several other jail incentive programs available to inmates. I do not believe it violates any constitutional or other legal rights. My purpose was to protect children and help people in their rehabilitation efforts. I have no other agenda.

Note: The WTVF story quotes District Attorney Bryant Dunaway as saying he’s worried the program may be unethical and possibly illegal.

“It’s concerning to me, my office doesn’t support this order,” Dunaway said.

“It’s comprehensible that an 18-year-old gets this done, it can’t get reversed and then that impacts the rest of their life,” he added.

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