NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A bipartisan bill aimed at making sure Tennessee prisoners are no longer encouraged to undergo sterilization if they want to spend less time in jail passed in the state legislature on Tuesday.
The measure was approved following an uproar last year when it was revealed that a White County judge signed an order allowing inmates to get out of jail 30 days early if they agreed to free vasectomies or long-acting birth-control implants. Dozens of inmates took the deal, according to at least one of several federal civil rights lawsuits filed as a result of the order.
White County General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield was later reprimanded by a board that disciplines judges. The revelations about the use of birth control to reduce jail time in that county drew swift condemnation, with some saying it harkened to a shameful time in American history were people were forced to undergo sterilization because they had so-called undesirable traits. Mentally disabled people and those of color were often victims of the eugenics movement of the 20th century.
The House voted 70-23 on Tuesday to pass the bill sponsored by Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis. She told fellow lawmakers before Tuesday’s vote that the bill was a direct result of the program in White County.
The Senate passed the same bill last month, which was sponsored by Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown.
Lawyers say that both the Tennessee and the U.S. constitution already bar the use of birth control or sterilization to determine how long someone should spend behind bars. But that has not stopped repeated problems in the state of Tennessee. Three years ago a Nashville prosecutor was fired after defense attorneys complained that he had offered plea deals to women based on them undergoing sterilization.
The bill that passed bars a judge from deciding on how long someone should stay in jail based on their consent or refusal to any temporary or permanent birth control. It also says judges cannot accept any plea bargain that involves sterilization or birth control.