Tennessee judge ends controversial sentence reduction program for inmates choosing birth control

NASHVILLE - A Tennessee judge has pulled the plug on a controversial program that encouraged female and male inmates with drug addiction problems to cut the length of their jail sentences through voluntarily undergoing birth control procedures.

Amid a growing legal uproar, White County General Sessions Court Judge Sam Benningfield of Sparta filed an order Wednesday reversing his earlier May 15 order.

He had hoped the program would help combat the number of babies in the Upper Cumberland Plateau community born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.

"I wasn't on a crusade," Benningfield said Thursday in a telephone interview. "I don't have a 'mission.' I thought I could help a few folks, get them thinking and primarily help children."

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome is a condition in which a baby is born with withdrawal symptoms after being exposed to addictive substances as a fetus while inside the mother's womb.

Earlier Thursday, two state lawmakers, Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris and Rep. G.A. Hardaway, both Memphis Democrats, asked Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery to render a legal opinion on the program's constitutionality.

But unbeknownst to them, Benningfield on Wednesday rescinded his order, which had already come under fire from critics including the American Civil Liberties Union-Tennessee.

"We are pleased that Judge Benningfield rescinded his unconstitutional standing order that offered a 30-day jail credit to inmates in exchange for getting vasectomies or birth control implants," ACLU-TN Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said in a statement. "The Constitution protects people's right to choose whether and when to procreate."

Weinberg said the judge's initial order undermined "this constitutional protection because it amounted to the government coercing people not to procreate. Though the program was technically 'voluntary,' spending even a few days in jail can lead to the loss of jobs, child custody, housing and vehicles."

The program provided 30 days' credit toward jail time for men who agreed to free vasectomies in White County and for women who agreed to receive free Nexplanon implants, which are intended to prevent pregnancies for up to four years.

WTVF-TV in Nashville first reported about the program earlier this month and also reported 32 women and 38 men had signed up for it.

Benningfield said his purpose was helping prevent babies from being born addicted to narcotics or other drugs.

Speaking with the Times Free Press, Benningfield said he rescinded the program not because he's changed his mind about it but because Tennessee Department of Health officials abruptly left him no choice.

The officials "withdrew their support, and I didn't have anything to offer," Benningfield said.

"They came to me with the program," the judge said of the state. "They asked me, as a matter of fact brought to me a proposed order is the way to put it, awarding two days for attending the class."

Benningfield's order directed that any inmate serving a sentence in his court who satisfactorily completed the state health department's Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome program be given two days credit toward completion of his or her jail sentence.

But Benningfield also has jurisdiction over juveniles. He noted he has dealt with any number of cases involving babies born almost immediately into agonizing withdrawal because of their mothers' dependency issues.

"The more I thought about it, I thought, 'Hey, let's get some folks thinking about it,'" the judge said. "I thought the 30 days [credit] was enough to get their attention but not so much to override their judgment."

As a judge dealing with misdemeanor crimes committed by adults over 18, Benningfield cannot sentence anyone to more than 11 months and 29 days in jail. He said he included males in the offer because he didn't want to be accused of being prejudicial.

The judge said that, while the offer of 30 days sentence reduction was not the department of health's idea, "I will say they were not disappointed. At the time they had no compunction."

Without mentioning the Tennessee Department of Health had ended its participation in White County, departmental spokeswoman Shelley Walker said in an earlier email the agency offers family planning services on a sliding pay scale based on income at all 95 county health department locations in the state.

"White County is one of several counties across the state in which our health departments are working collaboratively with other local organizations and groups to prevent Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome in their communities," said Walker, calling it "a priority public health issue in Tennessee."

Over the past decade, she said, Tennessee has experienced a ten-fold leap in the number of babies born addicted.

It's "entirely preventable," Walker said, "and preventing unintended pregnancies is a key strategy for reducing the incidence of NAS."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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