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A Tennessee judge has rescinded a potentially unconstitutional order that offered a reduction in inmates’ sentences in exchange for vasectomies and birth control.
General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield’s now-rescinded standing order was first issued in May and allowed White County inmates to wipe 30 days off of their sentences if they agreed to a vasectomy.
Women were able to receive a Nexplanon birth control implant for the same sentence reduction.
But on Wednesday, Benningfield reversed his decision, ending the program.
The document says that inmates who had already signed up for the program and “demonstrated to the court their desire to improve their situations and take serious and considered steps toward their rehabilitation by having the procedure” will still receive the 30-day credit on their sentence.
If an inmate has signed up for the procedure, but does not ultimately receive it, they will still be issued the credit, the document says.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee applauded Benningfield’s reversal, having condemned the initial standing order and saying it was “unconstitutional” despite being a voluntary program.
“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,” Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director, said in a statement. “The judge’s order crossed a constitutional line and we are pleased that he rescinded it.”
After he rescinded the order, Benningfield told the Times Free Press that he was attempting to help children in the county with his initial order.
"I wasn't on a crusade," Benningfield said. "I don't have a 'mission.' I thought I could help a few folks, get them thinking and primarily help children."
Administrators in Benningfield’s office were not available to speak about the reversal on Friday, and directed media inquiries to a statement given to SpartaLive.com, which was issued before the standing order was rescinded.
In the statement, Benningfield wrote that he had been visited in May by representatives of the Tennessee Department of Health, who were seeking his help to educate inmates about the dangers of using drugs while pregnant.
In addition to an educational program, Benningfield said, the department was offering free contraceptives and pointed to other local judges who were offering sentence reductions in exchange for the completion of educational programs.
“As I contemplated this program it occurred to me that many of the same women I had incarcerated were the very same from whom I was having to remove their children in my role as the Juvenile Judge because they were born addicted to drugs or dependant [sic] and neglected as a result of the drug use of the parents,” Benningfield wrote of his decision to issue the standing order.
Because many male inmates had children they were in trouble for not supporting, he said, he decided to take the extra step and offer the sentence reduction in exchange for agreeing to the vasectomy.
“The offer is in no way coercive — I do not know who accepts it — and is one of several other jail incentive programs available to inmates,” Benningfield wrote. “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.”
NBC News was not able to independently verify how many inmates had signed up for the program, but News Channel 5 reported that 32 women received implants of the hormone device Nexplanon, and 38 men signed up to receive vasectomies. It was not clear if any of the men had undergone the surgery.
Although vasectomies and birth control implants are no longer available in exchange for less time to serve, inmates in White County can still receive two days of credit on their sentences if they successfully complete a Tennessee Department of Health Neonatal Syndrome Education Program.