The Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct has publicly reprimanded a judge who had offered reduced jail time to inmates who agreed to get long-term birth control procedures.
Judge Sam Benningfield had offered a 30-day jail credit to female inmates who received a free Nexplanon implant, which provides up to three years of continuous birth control, and to male inmates who received a vasectomy, according to the board’s letter.
Benningfield, a White County General Sessions judge, signed the standing order on May 15 enforcing the program.
“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,” Benningfield told CNN affiliate WTVF at the time. “This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.”
The Board of Judicial Conduct last week wrote that Benningfield violated two rules by failing to comply with the law and failing to promote confidence in the judiciary.
“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 Board wrote.
The program had faced criticism from District Attorney Bryant Dunaway, among others, for its questionable legality and for appearing to insert the government into private family matters.
“Those decisions are personal in nature, I think that’s just something the court system should not encourage nor mandate,” Dunaway told CNN affiliate WTVF.
Benningfield’s program was seen by some as an echo of the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. The goal of that movement was to rid society of people thought to be undesirable. California forcibly sterilized about 20,000 people between 1909 and 1963.
Hedy Weinberg, the ACLU of Tennessee’s executive director, argued that Benningfield’s program “amounted to the government coercing people not to procreate.”
“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,” Weinberg wrote.
Board criticizes judge
As of July 20, about 70 people, including 32 women and 38 men, had chosen to participate in the program.
Judge Benningfield rescinded his earlier order on July 26 after the state of Tennessee, Department of Health indicated it would no longer offer free vasectomies or Nexplanon implants to inmates serving a sentence for the General Sessions Court.
However, that order said that inmates who agreed to undergo the procedure would be awarded the 30 days credit whether or not they ultimately got the procedure.
“Those inmates who have demonstrated to the court their desire to improve their situations and take serious and considered steps toward their rehabilitation by having the procedures or agreeing to have same will not be denied the credit,” he wrote in the order.
The Board wrote in the public reprimand that the rescinded order was also inappropriate.