NASHVILLE — A Tennessee judge who agreed to shave time off inmate's sentences if they agreed to receive vasectomies or other forms of birth control was publicly reprimanded by Tennessee judicial regulators.
In its Nov. 15 letter of reprimand, the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct suggested White County judge Sam Benningfield acted in a way that threatened public confidence in the judicial system.
"You have acknowledged that even though your (sic) were trying to accomplish a worthy goal in preventing the birth of substance addicted babies by the entry of your order of May 15, 2017, you now realize that this order could unduly coerce inmates into undergoing a surgical procedure which would cause at least a temporary sterilization, and it was therefore improper," the letter states.
Female inmates who received an implant and male inmates who underwent vasectomies received a 30-day jail credit, according to the public reprimand.
Benningfield, a General Sessions judge, issued the initial order creating the deal in May. After substantial public scrutiny, Benningfield issued another order in July rescinding the practice.
Alex Friedmann, a former inmate who is now the associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News, filed a complaint against Benningfield. Friedmann praised the board's decision to reprimand the judge.
"Prisoners are a vulnerable population who are especially susceptible to such coercive incentives because they want to return to their families and are at risk of losing their jobs and housing the longer they are incarcerated," Friedmann said.
"Judges cannot exercise any sort of control they want over defendants in their courtrooms, just because they think they can."
A federal lawsuit filed in August accuses Benningfield of acting with White County Sheriff Oddie Shoupe to carry out a "modern day eugenics scheme." According to the lawsuit, 35 women got a birth control implant and 42 men underwent vasectomies through the practice.
Another federal lawsuit filed in October against Benningfield and Shoupe alleges similar conduct.
"So Shoupe, wishing to reach his Eugenics goal, chose to offer the one thing that means the most to a human being who is incarcerated behind bars: Freedom," the lawsuit states.
"Offering freedom in exchange for a vasectomy is not only unnecessary — if the
goal is to obtain true voluntary consent — it is also unconstitutional..."
The reprimand also scolded Benningfield for threatening to end all standing house arrest orders in his court if a defense attorney did not "withdraw a valid objection" during a probation hearing.
A public rebuke is formal punishment but does not include any tangible affect on a judge's ability to work.
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