A Tennessee judge who drew widespread condemnation this past summer for offering vasectomies in exchange for lighter jail sentences has been formally reprimanded.
Judge Sam Benningfield of White County told repeat drug offenders in his court that he would cut their sentences by 30 days if they would sign up for sterilization. For male inmates, this meant undergoing a vasectomy. For women, this meant implanting Nexplanon—a long-term birth control device that is inserted in the arm.
As The Tennessean reports, the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct delivered the reprimand, offering mild praise of the judge’s intentions even while rebuking him for his actions.
From the board’s Nov. 15 letter:
You have acknowledged that even though your [sic] 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.”
A reprimand is the mildest form of rebuke given to sitting judges, and doesn’t actually impede their ability to work.
Back in July, Benningfield defended his actions. CBS News reported that the judge said he hoped the coerced sterilizations would “encourage [violators] to take personal responsibility and give them a chance.” Tennessee has been crippled by opioid addiction, with middle Tennessee (where White County is located), in particular, suffering from a rise in heroin use.
Federal suits filed against the judge charged Benningfield, along with White County Sheriff Oddie Shoupe, with carring out a “modern-day eugenics scheme.” The American Civil Liberties Union pointed out that the “choice” presented to the inmates was not only unethical but also unconstitutional.
“[It] 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,” the Tennessee chapter of the ACLU wrote. “Judges play an important role in our community—overseeing individuals’ childbearing capacity should not be part of that role.”
Offering sterilization from the bench—as a means of purchasing a shorter sentence, which is to say, a means of buying a quick route to freedom—is coercion. Not only does it force the hands of vulnerable people already at the mercy of the state, but such offers demand that drug abusers make quick, irreversible decisions about their fertility and long-term health. True consent could never exist in that situation—a fact that either escaped Benningfield, or one that was deemed inconsequential in light of his “worthy goal.”
According to The Tennessean, 42 men had signed up for the vasectomy, but none went through with the procedure because the Tennessee Board of Health refused to offer the vasectomies for free. This—not the public outcry—prompted Judge Benningfield to pull his order. It’s unclear how many of the women who signed up for the long-term birth control implements received them, though the Washington Post reported that 32 women had gotten the implant as of July.
Read more at The Tennessean.