A Tennessee judge is drawing criticism and scrutiny thanks to a highly controversial plan aimed at curbing the state’s surge in babies born addicted to opioids. Judge Sam Benningfield has been offering to reduce the sentences of county jail inmates if they agree to undergo procedures to prevent themselves from having children, knocking a month off their jail time if they receive a vasectomy or a birth control implant.
Benningfield has insisted that the decision struck him as a matter of common sense, a means to help fight the state’s opioid crisis while cutting a little slack to people jailed for their drug abuse. Given the history of eugenics and forced sterilization within the American justice system, however―a grim and often underreported aspect of American history―it’s being met with considerable outcry, and the ACLU believes it to be an unlawful order.
For his part, according to CBS News, Benningfield is surprised by the criticism. He denies that anyone is being forced to take the deal, and he argues that it’s a way to give inmates a “leg up” once they get out of jail.
“I‘m trying to help these folks, you know, begin to think about taking responsibility for their life and doing right and giving them a leg up,” he said. “And when they get out of jail to perhaps rehabilitate themselves and not be burdened again with unwanted children and all that comes with that.”
Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of ACLU Tennessee, released a statement detailing her organization’s opposition to the controversial program.
“Offering a so-called ‘choice’ between jail time and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional,” Weinberg said. “Such a choice violates the fundamental constitutional right to reproductive autonomy and bodily integrity by interfering with the intimate decision of whether and when to have a child, imposing an intrusive medical procedure on individuals who are not in a position to reject it. Judges play an important role in our community—overseeing individuals’ childbearing capacity should not be part of that role.”
The Tennessee Department of Health has also weighed in on the matter, coming out in opposition to the idea in a statement released to the Washington Post.
“Neither the Tennessee Department of Health nor the White County Health Department was involved in developing any policy to offer sentence reductions to those convicted of crimes in exchange for their receiving family planning services,” said Shelley Walker, a spokesperson for the department. “We do not support any policy that could compel incarcerated individuals to seek any particular health services from us or from other providers.”
According to local news reports, Benningfield’s offer has been taken up by 38 men and 32 women so far. Inmates can reportedly shave an additional two days off their jail time by attending a class on neonatal care and the risks of babies becoming addicted to drugs while still in the womb.