Judge ends offer of reduced jail time for vasectomies, blames state Dept. of Health

White County General Sessions Court Judge Sam Benningfield has rescinded his controversial offer to reduce the jail sentences of male prisoners who get vasectomies and female prisoners who get contraceptive implants, reports WTVF-TV. He blames the state health officials for the decision.

The contraceptive procedures were offered free by the state Department of Health when the judge in May issued an order authorizing 30-days off jail times for inmates who undergo the procedures. He issued a new order rescinding the offer for new inmates, saying officials have advised him the department “will no longer offer free vasectomies… and will not provide the free Nexplanon implant” to White County inmates who get a sentence reduction.

The judge said in his order that those who had already signed up – at least 32 women and 38 men, according to an earlier report — will still get the 30-day sentence reduction without going through the procedures. The order says these inmates have “demonstrated to the court their desire to improve their situations and take serious and considered steps toward their rehabilitation.”

A Tennessee American Civil Liberties Union leader had declared the “coerced contraception” unconstitutional and a group of state legislators have asked the state attorney general for a formal legal opinion on whether that assessment is correct.

The judge released the following comment when NewsChannel 5 asked about the order:

“I did not change my mind. The health department succumbed to the pressure and withdrew their offer of services. I had nothing to offer so rescinded the order. I bet they didn’t tell that part.”

Statement via press release from Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU in Tennessee:

“We are pleased that Judge Benningfield rescinded his unconstitutional standing order that offered a 30-day jail credit to inmates in exchange for getting vasectomies or birth control implants. The Constitution protects people’s right to choose whether and when to procreate.

“The judge’s initial order undermined this constitutional protection because it amounted to the government coercing people not to procreate. 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.”

Statement via press release from Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis

“Judge Sam Benningfield’s previous order was misguided because it conditioned criminal sentencing on a defendant’s willingness to sterilize and give up the right to have children. The order targeted a vulnerable population, went after a right that is God-given, and used state power as the hammer. This latest order is equally disturbing. Although this latest order does not contemplate a medical procedure, Judge Benningfield still seems to tie sentencing to the defendant’s willingness to give up their God-given right to have children or not to have children.     

“In the first instance, he tied sentencing to the defendant’s agreement to a medical procedure that, at least in the case of male defendants, would have almost permanently restricted their ability to have children. This time, he promises a sentencing reduction if a defendant has demonstrated a commitment to avoid having children. What’s contemplated in the first order and this latest one is equally ghastly. Defendants should not have to bargain away their right to have children to win favor in Tennessee courtrooms.”

Note: Text of Benningfield’s latest order is HERE. Most recent previous post (on the request for an AG opinion) is HERE.

One Response to Judge ends offer of reduced jail time for vasectomies, blames state Dept. of Health

  • Diana Page says:

    In my opinion, the Dept. of Health should make effective contraception readily available to all without conditions. There is no reason that receipt of contraception should be based on sentence reduction. Contraception should be offered without exchange or any hint of coercion.

    I hope that this judge’s missteps will not impact potentially non-coercive initiatives.

    (Assuming it is possible to offer LARC in correctional or similar settings without coercion, i.e., does the setting itself indicate coercion?–I hope not–many of the recipients likely had no medical care prior to incarceration?)

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.
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