It was recently reported that Judge Sam Benningfield, a judge in central Tennessee, issued a standing order that inmates can receive 30 days’ credit toward their jail time if they volunteer for vasectomies or contraceptive implants. He explains that he is hoping to help repeat offenders “make something of themselves” by offering them this deal. He said he wanted to break a “vicious cycle” of drug offenders passing through his courtroom who couldn’t find jobs or afford child support. “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,” he said. “This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.”
The reduced jail time in exchange for sterilization operations was issued in May, and already dozens of inmates have sought to take advantage of it. Thus far, 32 women have received implants of the hormone device Nexplanon, (the brand name for an etonogestrel birth control device about the size of a matchstick that is implanted in a woman’s arm, providing 99 percent effective contraception for up to four years) and 38 men have signed up to receive vasectomies. The procedures are reportedly being performed free by the Tennessee Department of Health. Inmates in White County were also reportedly offered a two-day credit on their sentence if they completed a neonatal class designed to educate them about the dangers of having children while using drugs.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee called the order unconstitutional, saying judges should not play a role in a person’s ability to procreate. “Offering a so-called ‘choice’ between jail time and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional,” Hedy Weinberg, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement Thursday. “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.”
Another attorney complained: “Judge Benningfield wants to keep criminals from having criminal babies. Hell, he probably has some phrenology training and knows a genetically predisposed criminal baby when he sees it. Whatever his real motivation, he wants to use the stick of the state to coerce people into trading their reproductive capacity for a month. Which many are going to do, because making stupid decisions because they feel cornered and desperate is kind of how they got to this point in the first place.”
All over the United States, heroin-related arrests have surged in recent years as states have struggled to respond to growing opioid addiction. Tennessee is not unique. If Judge Benningfield is looking for effective methods of reducing repeat drug offenses, he need only look to Connecticut, or even in his own state of Tennessee, to find appropriate alternatives.
Connecticut recently passed legislation that will take additional steps to address the state’s opioid crisis. Aimed at benefiting those who are at risk of developing an opioid use disorder as well as those who are currently struggling with an opioid addiction, the bill provides for increased oversight for prescribed opioid medication, expanded data sharing between state agencies on abuse and overdose deaths, and a reduction in the maximum prescription for minors from seven to five days. Prescribers must educate patients about the potential risks of opioids and they must prescribe electronically because handwritten prescriptions offer more potential for misuse, including people doctoring a prescription, faking an amount, or faking a name.
Another component of the bill facilitates the destruction of unused prescriptions by home health care agency registered nurses so they’re not sitting in the medicine cabinet. Additionally, the bill requires individual and group health insurers to cover medically necessary detox treatment, as defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine criteria, which eliminates insurance companies relying on their own criteria to say that treatment is not medically necessary. In a statement, Gov. Dannel Malloy said the unanimous passage of the bill sends a message that the state’s leaders are of one mind when it comes to battling opioid use.
So clearly there are many things that we can do to combat the illegal and unsafe use of drugs. In fact, Tennessee is encouraging education by awarding two days’ worth of credit toward jail time for inmates who complete a state-run neonatal education program, the purpose of which is to teach inmates about the dangers of having a child while on drugs. So while we recognize that judges play an important role in our community, overseeing an individual’s childbearing capacity should not be part of that responsibility.