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Judge Promises Reduced Jail Time If Tennessee Inmates Get Vasectomies

As general sessions judge for White County, Tenn., Sam Benningfield says the vast majority of cases he hears are drug-related offenses. The opioid epidemic has hit the state especially hard — resulting in more than 1,400 drug overdose deaths there in 2015 alone, according to the CDC — and he felt that an unusual solution would be necessary to drive home the dangers of illegal drugs for would-be parents.

So in May, Benningfield issued a standing order: If inmates at the White County Jail undergo a form of long-term contraception for free — a vasectomy for men or a Nexplanon implant for women — they can shave 30 days off their sentences.

"I'm trying to help these folks begin to think about taking responsibility for their life and giving them a leg up — you know, when they get out of jail — to perhaps rehabilitate themselves and not be burdened again with unwanted children and all that comes with that," Benningfield tells CBS News.

Others have not seen his order in the same light. After a local News Channel 5 report earlier this week, the order earned national headlines — and significant criticism, both in the county and beyond state lines.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the state American Civil Liberties Union, condemned the offer as "unconstitutional" in a statement:

"Offering a so-called 'choice' between jail time and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional. 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. Judges play an important role in our community — overseeing individuals' childbearing capacity should not be part of that role."

The decisions surrounding long-term contraception "are personal in nature," Bryant Dunaway, the district attorney general for the county, told News Channel 5, "and I think that's just something the court system should not encourage or mandate."

But Benningfield, who is also offering two days credit to any inmate who attends a state-run education program on neonatal abstinence syndrome, tells CBS that this order "is not forced on them."

"It seemed to me almost a no-brainer," he says. "Offer these women a chance to think about what they're doing and try to rehabilitate their life."

Citing the White County Sheriff's Department, CBS reports that at least 24 women have already had the procedure, a toothpick-sized implant that prevents pregnancy for up to three years, and 38 men have signed up to undergo a vasectomy.

It is not the first controversial attempt in Tennessee to tackle the dangerous combination of pregnancy and illegal drugs. For roughly two years, state lawmakers criminalized drug use by pregnant women under legislation known as the "fetal assault" law. But lawmakers let the measure expire last year after finding it often dissuaded addicted women from seeking prenatal care for fear they would be jailed.

As for Benningfield's standing order, the Tennessee Department of Health says it objects to the program.

"We do not support any policy that could compel incarcerated individuals to seek any particular health services," department spokeswoman Shelley Walker said in a statement to Reuters on Friday.

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.