A Tennessee judge is taking back his offer to reduce the jail time of inmates who opt to get a vasectomy or birth control implant after being met with backlash and harsh criticism from health officials, prosecutors and civil rights attorneys alike.
In a one-page court filing Thursday, White County, Tenn., General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield officially rescinded the order. According to the Washington Post, Benningfield assured those who took “serious and considered steps toward their rehabilitation” that they would still get the credit, but the program would be otherwise canceled.
Back in May, Benningfield signed off on a standing order allowing inmates to get 30 days’ credit toward jail time if they agreed to a birth control procedure. For women, the program issued a free Nexplanon implant in their arm that would help prevent pregnancies for up to four years, while men who volunteered were to be given a free vasectomy by the Tennessee Department of Health.
Officials said that since the program started, some 32 women have gotten the implant, while 28 men are waiting to have their vasectomy performed.
Needless to say, the plan drew swift backlash, with the American Civil Liberties Union calling the program “unconstitutional.”
At the time, Benningfield said that he was trying to break the cycle of repeat offenders who come into his courtroom on drug-related charges but could not afford child support or had issues finding jobs.
“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,” Benningfield said earlier this month when addressing the topic.
“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,” he added.
Benningfield said he decided to push forward with the program after speaking to officials from the state Department of Health.
But either Benningfield exaggerated the truth or the Department of Health is throwing him under the bus, since the department told the Washington Post that officials opposed the policy and played no role in the judge’s decision.
Ultimately, Benningfield acknowledged in his filing that he had to take back the order because the department ruled “it will no longer offer free vasectomies to White County inmates” and “will not provide the free Nexplanon implant” in exchange for jail credit.
“We are pleased that Judge Benningfield rescinded his unconstitutional standing order that offered a 30-day jail credit to inmates in exchange for getting vasectomies or birth control implants,” the executive director of the state’s ACLU, Hedy Weinberg, said in a statement, according to the Times Free Press. “The Constitution protects people’s right to choose whether and when to procreate.”
Despite the backlash, Benningfield insists that he was merely thinking of the children when the idea came to mind—more specifically those who are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, in which babies are born with withdrawal symptoms after being exposed to addictive substances while inside the mother’s womb.
“I wasn’t on a crusade,” Benningfield told the Times Free Press. “I don’t have a ‘mission.’ I thought I could help a few folks, get them thinking and primarily help children.”