Judge under scrutiny for offering reduced sentences for vasectom - WSMV News 4

Judge under scrutiny for offering reduced sentences for vasectomies, birth control implants

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Judge Sam Benningfield (WSMV) Judge Sam Benningfield (WSMV)
SPARTA, TN (WSMV) -

Judge Sam Benningfield is facing scrutiny from local and state departments for a program that would offer reduced sentences for pregnancy prevention.

Mary Cantrell was released from the White County Jail two days ago. She said, inside, she was offered a shorter sentence if she agreed to be surgically implanted with a birth control called Nexplanon.

"When we come in the inmates inside the jail was telling us about there was a new birth control thing for women," Cantrell told News 4 outside of the jail.

Judge Benningfield is behind the program. His order signed in May would knock 30 days off a jail sentence for men who agreed to a vasectomy and women who got the implant.

Inmates who took a course from the Tennessee Department of Health Neonatal Syndrome Education Program would have his or her sentence reduced by two days.

Cantrell declined to get the implant, but opted to take course. When she got to the classroom, she said Benningfield was there apologizing.

"[He said] he didn't mean it. He wasn't trying to force us or coerce us into getting the birth control," Cantrell said. "That he was sorry. That he didn't mean to say that he didn't mean to make us feel like that we shouldn't have children, that he just wanted us to wait until we could support them better and use better judgment.”

This week, under nationwide scrutiny, Benningfield filed a ruling rescinding the program.

He told News 4 on the phone Friday he filed the ruling to rescind because the state health department won't participate in the program. He went on to say he only wanted to prevent children from being born into tragic situations like drug addiction, stating that about 90 percent of the inmate population in the White County Jail had drug-related offenses or battled addiction.

"As a younger man, probably coming off drugs like most of these people are, their judgment, I don't think that was fair, because they're thinking 32 days we'll get out of here," Cantrell said. "It's miserable in jail, so they were looking at the 32 days we're getting out, and they probably had a procedure they can't reverse."

She said women could have the implant removed it they want, but still shouldn't have made the decisions given the stress and emotional circumstances.

"The women, most of them were coming off drugs. They weren't in clear judgment to make this decision," Cantrell said.

Attorney Daniel Horwitz said Benningfield needs to step down.

"This program is outrageous," Horwitz said. "It is morally indefensible and it's illegal.

“Coerced consent is not the same thing as consent, and using jail time as a means of getting someone to submit to sterilization is not acceptable in any regard,” Horwitz added.

Horwitz said the program takes away constitutional reproductive freedom through coercion.

"This is exclusively targeting a vulnerable population that is incarcerated," Horwitz said. “It is trading freedom for sterilization. That is deeply coercive, especially for people with sentences that are not terribly long.”

He also takes issue with the order to rescind. The first paragraph says the program will stop, the second paragraph says inmates can still get jail credit if the agree to have a procedure.

"As far as I am concerned, this order is still in effect based on the language of the order dated July 26," Horwitz said.

Cantrell said she accepts the judge's apology.

"Personally, he apologized to us and I'm happy with that and I don't really think that he meant to hurt people," she said.

Horwitz said apologies, meaningful or not, don't matter in this case.

"I think it is unconscionable that anyone would tolerate a judge or a criminal justice system that coerces people into relinquishing their reproductive rights in order to gain their freedom," Horwitz said. "I want this entire order rescinded in its entirety, and I want this judge, Judge Benningfield, to seriously consider whether he needs to be on the bench any longer.”

Horwitz learned that dozens of men signed to have a vasectomy procedure. Benningfield told News 4 none were performed.

The Tennessee Department of Health said its staff members do not perform surgical procedures such as a vasectomy. The health department said it "has not facilitated provision of any vasectomies for any incarcerated individuals."

The White County Health Department has "provided health services to 28 female inmates since February of this year," said Shelley Walker, spokesperson with the state health department.

Walkers said the health education and health services for inmates at the White County Jail was not a result of a judge's order and they were never part of the program.

"We were never part of development of any program to offer reduced sentences to any incarcerated persons in exchange for receipt of health services, and do not support any policy that could compel incarcerated individuals to seek any particular health services due to concerns about influences on personal choice and patients’ ability to provide informed consent. We continue to provide family planning services for patients who request them, but must ensure our patients are not compelled to make the request by any incentive such as an offer of reduced jail time," Walker wrote.

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