UPDATE: A Tennessee judge has rescinded his controversial program that sought to encourage drug-dependent female and male inmates to cut their jail time by voluntarily agreeing to undergo birth control procedures.
White County General Sessions Court Judge Sam Benningfield of Sparta filed the order on Wednesday, a day before two state lawmakers asked Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery to render a legal opinion on the controversial program's constitutionality.
ORIGINAL STORY: NASHVILLE — Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery is being asked to render his legal opinion on the constitutionality of a White County judge's controversial program that allows some inmates to buy their way to shorter jail terms through agreeing to temporary or even permanent sterilization.
State Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, said Thursday they've formally requested Slatery to render an opinion on whether Tennessee judges have the power to impose, reduce or vary a defendant's criminal sentence based on agreeing to give up their productive rights.
"Offering incentives in exchange for someone's reproductive freedom is not only unethical, I'm pretty sure it's unconstitutional," Hardaway said of White County General Sessions Court Judge Sam Benningfield's program, which has drawn a national spotlight on Tennessee.
Since Benningfield implemented the program in May, 32 women agreed to get a Nexplananon implant while 38 men were awaiting a vasectomy, Nashville's WTVF-TV reported earlier this month.
Benningfield signed a standing order that allows inmates to receive 30 days credit toward jail time if they undergo a birth control procedure.
Sen. Harris, an attorney and law professor, said in a news release Thursday that "we depend on our judges to administer justice fairly, not to use their position of power to coerce vulnerable populations to give up their God-given rights to have children or not have children."
The senator said reproductive health care options "should be available to all, in prison and out. However, those options should always be offered on a voluntary basis. These options should not come with strings attached or through coercion."
Hardaway said White County residents are apparently "being targeted and they are not in a position to reject this coerced offer."
He said both he and Harris expect Slatery to issue a "prompt response" to their legal opinion request.
Judge Benningfield told WTVF his intent is to break the cycle of repeat offenders who flood his courtroom on drug-related charges and subsequently can't afford child support, and also have trouble finding jobs.
"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. This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves," Benningfield told the television station.
According to WTVF, Benningfield said he decided to implement the program after speaking with Tennessee Department of Health officials.