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Tennessee judge pulls controversial program reducing jail sentences for inmates who have vasectomies

General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield ended his controversial program that permitted inmates in White County, Tennessee, to receive reduced jail time if they agreed to undergo a birth control procedure. (Image source: WTVF-TV screenshot)

A Tennessee judge has ended a controversial program that permitted inmates in White County, Tennessee, to receive reduced jail time if they agreed to undergo a birth control procedure, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield issued an order in May offering White County inmates a chance to reduce their sentences by 30 days if they agreed to have a vasectomy or get a birth control implant.

Benningfield said he implemented the program because he wanted to break a cycle of “repeat offenders” in his courtroom who can’t afford child support.

The order gained national attention after Tennessee’s WTVF-TV featured the program in a news report. The local district attorney objected to the program. Critics blasted it as unethical and unconstitutional, some called it eugenics.

Explaining his decision to end the program, Benningfield told the Times Free Press, "I wasn't on a crusade."

"I don't have a 'mission,'” he said. “I thought I could help a few folks, get them thinking and primarily help children."

Benningfield said that inmates who already entered the program will still have their sentences reduced. He added that, though he has not changed his mind about the program, state health officials "withdrew their support,” so he felt he didn’t have a choice.

"I thought the 30 days [credit] was enough to get [inmates’] attention but not so much to override their judgment," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee was one of the groups that called the original order unconstitutional.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, said in a statement, “We are pleased that Judge Benningfield rescinded his unconstitutional standing order that offered a 30-day jail credit to inmates in exchange for getting vasectomies or birth control implants.” Weinberg continued:

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.

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