Sparta, TN – A Tennessee judge’s creative sentencing practices led to a public reprimand by the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct on Wednesday.
White County General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield issued an order in May which offered a 30-day jail credit for inmates who voluntarily agreed to certain forms of birth control, USA Today reported.
Judge Benningfield told WVTF that he has worked with so many repeat drug offenders who couldn’t afford child support or didn’t have jobs that he decided something had to be done.
“What I’m hoping to do,” Judge Benningfield told WVTF, “is help them start thinking about taking responsibility for themselves.”
Thirty-five female inmates received free Nexplanon implants, and 42 male inmates underwent free vasectomies, in order to receive credit against their sentences, according to USA Today.
The implants last for four years. The vasectomies are generally permanent without further surgical intervention.
Following a week of complaints from civil rights groups, the judge issued a second order paring back the program. Anyone who signed up for the procedures and took “serious and considered steps toward their rehabilitation” would still get the credit, he wrote, but the plan was otherwise canceled, the Washington Post reported.
Finally, after significant criticism from the public, Judge Benningfield rescinded the order entirely in July.
Former inmate Alex Friedmann, who is now the associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News, also filed a complaint against Judge Benningfield.
"Prisoners are a vulnerable population who are especially susceptible to such coercive incentives because they want to return to their families and are at risk of losing their jobs and housing the longer they are incarcerated," Friedmann said.
The Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct’s Nov. 15 letter of reprimand suggested that Judge Benningfield’s sentencing deal threatened public confidence in the judicial system, USA Today reported.
"You have acknowledged that even though you were trying to accomplish a worthy goal in preventing the birth of substance addicted babies … 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’s letter read.
The Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct’s reprimand is a formal punishment.
Daniel Horwitz, who represents a group of male inmates, said the judicial board didn’t go far enough with their reprimand, and should have recommended Benningfield be removed from the bench.
“A public reprimand is serious, but as far as I’m concerned, nothing short of removal is acceptable,” Horwitz told Washington Post.
Several inmates who were jailed when the orders were in effect have sued the judge and White County Sheriff Oddie Shoupe, claiming their constitutional rights were violated.
A federal lawsuit was filed in August that accused them of carrying out a "modern day eugenics scheme."
“Offering freedom in exchange for a vasectomy is not only unnecessary - if the goal is to obtain true voluntary consent - it is also unconstitutional..." a similar lawsuit was filed in October said.
According to the lawsuits, there would be no legal way for the court to incentive people to stop reproducing.
The judge and the sheriff have denied liability.
Judge Benningfield remains on the bench in White County.
Do you think that Judge Benningfield's program was coercive? Do you think that this is a good idea? We'd like to hear what you think. Please let us know in the comments.