In an effort to quell the rise of drug-addicted babies, a Tennessee judge is offering inmates an undoubtedly unique deal that some critics are calling unconstitutional.
General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield signed a standing order earlier this year allowing inmates in White County, Tenn., to receive 30 days credit toward their sentence if they’d be willing to undergo a birth control procedure, local station News Channel 5 reported. Dozens of inmates have already taken advantage of the controversial deal.
Since the program began in May, 32 women have received implants of the birth control device Nexplanon while 38 men have signed up to receive vasectomies, county officials said. The procedures are currently being offered free of charge by Tennessee’s Deptartment of Health.
Benningfield, who was first appointed to the bench in 1998, told the station he wanted to end the “vicious cycle” of repeat drug offenders passing through his court room who could not secure a job or afford to pay child support. He decided to implement the program after speaking with officials at the state’s health department.
“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,” the judge said. “This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.”
Inmates at the White County jail also were reportedly offered a two-day credit toward their jail time if they completed a neonatal class aimed at educating them about the dangers of having children while using illicit drugs.
While Benningfield considers the program efficient, some critics have their reservations about it. The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee decried the judge’s efforts, arguing that the courts should not interfere with a person’s ability to have children.
“Offering a so-called ‘choice’ between jail time and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional,” the organization said in a statement. “Such a choice 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.”
District Attorney Bryant Dunaway, who oversees prosecution of cases in White County, also expressed concern that the program might not only be unethical, but illegal.
“My office doesn’t support this order,” Dunaway said.
Despite the backlash, however, Bennington is standing by his efforts.
“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,” he said. “I see it as a win-win.”