Tennessee Judge Ends Sentence Reductions for Prisoners Who Agree to Sterilization; Receives Reprimand
by David Reutter
A Tennessee state court judge has reversed course on a controversial sentence reduction program following an uproar from civil rights and prisoners’ rights advocates. He later received a public letter of reprimand from the Board of Judicial Conduct.
White County General Sessions Judge Sam E. Benningfield, Jr. said his only agenda in cutting the sentences of male and female prisoners who voluntarily agreed to undergo long-term birth control procedures was to address the problem of unwanted and drug-addicted babies.
Activists, however, said his May 15, 2017 order establishing the program was an unconstitutional infringement on the right to procreate. The incentive program cut 30 days off the sentences of male prisoners who had vasectomies and women who received a birth control implant called Nexplanon. Forty-two men agreed to vasectomies while 32 women agreed to the implants, which are intended to prevent pregnancy for up to four years. None of the male prisoners actually received vasectomies.
The ACLU of Tennessee said the program was an unconstitutional, coercive intrusion on the rights of vulnerable people.
“Offering a so-called ‘choice’ between jail and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional,” the organization said in a statement. Judge Benningfield was “imposing an intrusive medical procedure on individuals who are not in a position to reject it,” the ACLU added.
Attorneys for Nexus Services filed a lawsuit on behalf of Christel Ward, who thought she would receive a reduced sentence if she agreed to a Nexplanon implant, but did not get a time cut. At a news conference, she said she could not afford the $250 it costs to have the implant removed.
“This case is nothing more than a modern day eugenics scheme,” said Nexus CEO and president Mike Donovan.
The federal lawsuit, which remains pending, named White County Sheriff Mike Donovan, Judge Benningfield and Sheriff’s Deputy Donna Daniels as defendants. See: Ward v. Shoupe, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 2:17-cv-00047.
Benningfield rescinded the sentence reduction order on July 26, 2017, but defended his good intentions.
“I wasn’t on a crusade,” the judge said in an interview with 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.”
It is easier for addicts to deal with recovery if they are not burdened with children, Benningfield argued. He also hoped to keep babies from suffering from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, a condition that results when a baby suffers withdrawal symptoms after being exposed to drugs during pregnancy. The number of such cases has increased nationally due to the opioid crisis.
The idea for the sterilization program came after the Tennessee Department of Health (TDOH) presented Judge Benningfield with a proposal to cut two days off sentences if prisoners completed a class on Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.
“The more I thought about it, I thought, ‘Hey, let’s get some folks thinking about it,’” Benningfield said. “I thought the 30 days [sentence reduction credit] was enough to get their attention, but not so much to override their judgment.”
TDOH agreed to provide the sterilization procedures for free; however, the agency reversed course after the uproar over Benningfield’s order.
Meanwhile, Prison Legal News managing editor Alex Friedmann filed a formal complaint against Judge Benningfield, alleging violations of three rules of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
“No Tennessee statute authorizes the reduction of a jail sentence in exchange for prisoners agreeing to undergo a birth control procedure,” he said.
Friedmann’s complaint argued that “conditioning a reduction of a jail sentence on agreeing to long-term birth control is manipulative, coercive and exploits vulnerable prisoners who are unable to voluntarily consent to invasive medical procedures in exchange for early release. Prisoners who are desperate to return to their families and/or children, or who are at risk of losing their homes or jobs due to their incarceration, cannot truly give voluntary consent to an offer of early release dangled before them – particularly an offer that is sanctioned by the very court that sentenced them.”
Additionally, the complaint observed that “Judge Benningfield only extended his birth control incentive offer to prisoners and not to other persons who appeared before his court. If he truly wanted to reduce the burdens of ‘unwanted children,’ then why did he not make similar birth control incentives available for non-criminal defendants who appeared in his court, such as those involving debt collection cases or evictions, for example?”
In fact, although the judge “indicated that he wanted to reduce the possibility that babies would be born addicted to drugs.... [his] birth control incentive was made irrespective of whether prisoners had been convicted of a drug-related crime or had a substance abuse addiction. The order authorizing the birth control incentive specified it was available to any prisoner who agreed to long-term, invasive birth control.”
Noting that prisoners are “disproportionately poor and disproportionately people of color,” Friedmann concluded that Judge Benningfield’s sentence reduction incentive program “displayed bias and prejudice against the poor (socioeconomic status) and minorities, who are statistically more likely to be incarcerated.”
Based on that complaint, the Board of Judicial Conduct issued a public reprimand to Benningfield on November 15, 2017, in which the Board acknowledged he had agreed that his sentence reduction order “could unduly coerce inmates into undergoing a surgical procedure which would cause at least a temporary sterilization, and it was therefore improper.”
Subsequently, in January 2018, Tennessee state Rep. Brenda Gilmore and Senator Jeff Yarbro introduced legislation (HB1554 / SB1638) that would ban sterilization as part of plea bargains or sentences in state criminal cases.
Sources: www.truth-out.org, The Tennessean, Times Free Press, www.newschannel5.com
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