On Wednesday evening, News Channel 5 broke the unspeakable outrage that a judge in White County, Tennessee, had signed a standing order providing for a 30-day “reduction” in jailtime if an inmate submits to sterilization. According to the report, 70 inmates have already accepted this “eugenics discount” in exchange for early release. Somehow, each aspect of the story is even more shocking than the next.
To begin, General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield—the mastermind behind White County’s backdoor eugenics program—defended his efforts without any apparent sense of shame, telling Channel 5’s Chris Conte that: “I hope to encourage [inmates] to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to [sic] be burdened with children.”
Even worse, Judge Benningfield’s standing eugenics order has apparently been on file since May 15, 2017—meaning that an untold number of lawyers, judges, doctors, and law enforcement personnel have either acquiesced to it or simply turned a blind eye in the face of a policy that the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court designates as a crime against humanity.
To be absolutely and unequivocally clear: eugenics is illegal. In America, reproductive freedom is a fundamental constitutional right, and the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution forbids the government from treating people differently based on whether or not they choose to exercise their right to reproductive freedom. Tennessee’s criminal code also contains several specifically-designated mitigating factors and enhancement factors that judges are permitted to consider during sentencing. Whether a defendant has submitted to sterilization is not among them.
The framing of Judge Benningfield’s eugenics program as a “voluntary sentencing reduction” is also deeply troubling. It is not. Simply stated: In White County, Tennessee, any inmate who refuses to be sterilized is punished with an additional 30 days in jail.
Such a program is profoundly coercive—especially for defendants convicted of minor crimes who may avoid jail time entirely if they submit to sterilization. Anyone familiar with the criminal justice system knows that this length of time is sufficient to send a person’s life into disarray, because an extra month in prison can and frequently does result in job loss, loss of one’s home, or loss of one’s children. Of note, under Tennessee law, everyone is also at risk of being imprisoned for 30 days at any time for even the slightest traffic infraction based on law enforcement’s discretion.
In addition to its rank illegality and immorality, it goes without saying that using the coercive power of the state to promote sterilization also has severe potential for abuse. As a historical matter, eugenics programs always target disfavored minorities—from Jews in Nazi Germany to black men in Tuskegee, Alabama. Firmly in keeping with this tradition, Judge Benningfield’s eugenics program is reserved for White County inmates and apparently targets those suffering from drug addiction. In this regard, it is no less disgusting.
Judge Benningfield’s eugenics program is an outrage. He need not serve on the bench any longer, and he need not keep his law degree any longer. Infuriatingly, this also is not the first time that an officer of the Court who has been charged with upholding the law has implemented a (very recent) sterilization program in Tennessee—a fact that is similarly unconscionable in its own right. If Tennessee’s administrators of the practice of law took a fraction of the effort that they’ve expended trying to prevent qualified immigrants from taking the bar exam and redirected it toward removing people like Judge Benningfield from the profession, perhaps further abuses like this would be avoided.
Compounding the outrage is that nobody has yet filed suit over Judge Benningfield’s eugenics program during the two months that it has been in effect. Whether initiated by the ACLU, a public defender, or a private defense attorney, such a lawsuit needed to be filed yesterday. If you or a client of yours is affected by White County’s eugenics program and you want assistance pursuing the case, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will gladly take the case pro bono and donate the proceeds to the Holocaust Museum and the Tuskegee History Center. A program like this violates what the United States Supreme Court has declared to be “one of the basic civil rights of man,” and nobody—least of all the Bar—should tolerate it.