Updated 4:30 p.m.
A White County judge has rescinded his standing order offering a 30-day reduction in jail time to inmates who get vasectomies or birth-control implants.
Two Memphis lawmakers are asking the Tennessee Attorney General to weigh in on whether judges can offer long-term contraception as a sentencing condition.
The request comes in response to a White County judge’s newly-introduced practice of shaving a month off of jail time for inmates who choose to get a vasectomy or a birth-control implant.
Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris and Rep. G.A. Hardaway call the program unethical and possibly unconstitutional. They say reproductive choices should not come with strings attached for anyone.
Earlier this week, Judge Sam Benningfield responded in a statement to Sparta Live, after News Channel 5 brought widespread attention to his program.
The judge says the state Health Department initially asked him to help educate inmates about babies born dependent on drugs. Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome has risen tenfold in Tennessee in the past decade.
Benningfield says the agency pointed to a judge who offered two-day jail credits to those who agreed to counseling, and he wanted to take that a step further, in hopes of reducing the number of children his court has to remove from repeat offenders.
Since May, some 30 women have gotten a three-year contraceptive implant from the White County Health Department. And nearly 40 men have signed up to get vasectomies, which can be permanent, from a private physician.
A state Health Department spokeswoman tells WPLN the agency has never been involved in any policy that reduces sentencing for inmates or compels them to seek any kind of health service.
Meanwhile, the ACLU of Tennessee is likening the program to forced sterilization. It’s also been denounced by the White County District Attorney’s office.
But Judge Benningfield insists he introduced the program in open court, before representatives of both the local DA and Public Defender’s offices.