Judge cancels order to reduce sentences for birth control

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SPARTA, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee judge's plan to encourage birth control among prisoners once they are released has sputtered, only two months into the program.

General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield was offering sentence reductions for men who got free vasectomies and women who agreed to receive free Nexplanon implants, which prevent pregnancy for up to four years.

But the plan introduced in May was unpopular with the State Health Department, the American Civil Liberties Union and some lawmakers. The Health Department notified the court this month that the state would no longer offer free birth control or vasectomies to White County inmates, news outlets reported.

Benningfield reversed his order on Wednesday. He said the 32 women and 38 men who agreed to birth control would still receive 30 days of jail credit, regardless of whether they had undergone the procedure.

"I did not change my mind," Benningfield said in a statement. "The health department succumbed to the pressure and withdrew their offer of services. I had nothing to offer so rescinded the order. I bet they didn't tell that part."

Benningfield had said he wanted to help repeat offenders after prison.

"So I hope to encourage them to at some point finally take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, not to be burdened again with additional children," he said.

State Senate Democratic leader Lee Harris of Memphis said in a statement the new order still promises a reduced sentence for showing a commitment to avoid having a child.

"What's contemplated in the first order and this latest one is equally ghastly," the statement said. "Defendants should not have to bargain away their right to have children to win favor in Tennessee courtrooms."

The ACLU of Tennessee said in a statement that the right to choose whether to have children is protected by the Constitution.

"The judge's order crossed a constitutional line and we are pleased that he rescinded it," Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said.

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