Inmates in White County, Tennessee, were given a hard choice: a month less in jail for undergoing sterilization procedures. Now, however, the judge’s controversial offer is receiving some major backlash.
According to the Associated Press, Judge Sam Benningfield offered inmates a 30-day reduction of jail time if they voluntarily underwent procedures like vasectomies or birth control implants. The Washington Post reported Benningfield’s hope was to break the “vicious cycle” of repeat offenders who struggle with child care costs.
Benningfield’s offer, however, has some people believing the judge was looking to prevent these men and women from reproducing. Over the course of two months, Benningfield signed the orders of 32 women who opted to receive free Nexplanon implants as well as 38 men who volunteered to undergo vasectomies.
He told News Channel 5:
“I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to be burdened with children. This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves. …
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.”
But last Thursday, after receiving a letter of reprimand — an official rebuke of a judge — from the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct, Benningfield canceled the sterilization procedures. Per the Post, he still awarded 30 days off those inmates’ jail time because they took “serious and considered steps toward their rehabilitation.”
He told the Times Free Press last week that, contrary to some people’s opinions of his offer, he was trying to help:
“I wasn’t on a crusade. I don’t have a ‘mission.’ I thought I could help a few folks, get them thinking and primarily help children.”
District Attorney Bryant Dunaway told News Channel 5 the decision to undergo any of the offered procedures is deeply personal; he doesn’t believe any judge or judicial system should encourage or mandate it in any way.
Much of the criticism centered on the thought that those inmates might have felt not only pressured to take up Benningfield’s offer, but mandated to. The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee released a statement, per the Washington Post, explaining why that is. It read:
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.
Despite the fact that Benningfield said he was aiming to improve the lives of repeat offenders and their children, a number of people felt his actions were actually preventing a certain population from reproducing.
The question that remains, however, is what was the real reason so many people signed up?