A state board of judicial conduct decided to publicly reprimand Judge Sam Benningfield for offering a 30-day reduction in jail time to inmates who agree to undergo long-term birth control medical procedures. According to a letter from the board, the reduced sentence was offered to men who agreed to receive vasectomies, a surgical sterilization procedure.
As reported by CNN, on May 15, Benningfield, a White County, Tennessee, General Sessions judge, signed a standing order to enforce the program.
To qualify for the reduced sentence, female inmates must receive a Nexplanon birth control implant while male inmates much undergo vasectomy procedures.
“I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, not to be burdened with children,” said Benningfield during an interview. “This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.”
Last week, the Board of Judicial Conduct wrote Benningfield to inform him that he was in violation of two rules: failing to promote confidence in the judiciary and failing to comply with the law.
The Board wrote, “You have acknowledged that even though you were trying to accomplish a worthy goal in preventing the birth of substance addicted babies by the entry of your order of May 15, 2017, you now realize that this order could unduly coerce inmates into undergoing a surgical procedure which would cause at least a temporary sterilization, and it was therefore improper.”
The program had been previously criticized by Bryant Dunaway, the District Attorney, and others who questioned the legality of the order based on the government taking a role in family matters.
Dunaway stated, “Those decisions are personal in nature, I think that’s just something the court system should not encourage nor mandate.”
Some viewed Benningfield’s order as similar to the eugenics movement during the early 20th century, the goal of which was to eliminate “undesirables” from the population.
ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg asserted that Benningfield’s order “amounted to the government coercing people not to procreate.”
Weinberg wrote, “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.”
As of July 20, 38 men and 32 women had selected to participate in the program.
Benningfield’s order was rescinded on July 26 after Tennessee’s Department of Health decided to no longer offer the free birth control services to inmates sentenced through the General Sessions Court.