When Tennessee Judge Sam Benningfield issued a standing order in May to offer inmates of White County Jail reduced sentences for agreeing to reproductive sterilization, it harkened back to an era of eugenic practices.  And while Benningfield’s efforts have been met with astonishment by outsiders, many within White County see his tactics as hopeful.

Benningfield told CBS News that the sterilizations were necessary to combat a growing opioid crisis in the county, causing more than 1,400 drug overdoses and costing taxpayers, millions in rehabilitation and social services for those convicted and their families.

(Morry Gash/Associated Press)

“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 told CBS News.

Proponents of the measure say that while the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has denounced the legislation, it is not a violation of the inmates’ rights, as it is optional and with the full consent of anyone choosing to undergo either a vasectomy (men) or Nexplanon implants (women) in exchange for a 30-day reduction in their sentence.

Under eugenics programs, popular between 1907 and 1981, the U.S. government enacted laws to keep socially defective people – those considered criminal, inebriants, immoral, and intellectually deficient – from having children.  Under theories that proposed criminality was transmitted in the genes, sterilizing criminals guaranteed decreases in criminal behavior as well as the costs of incarceration and social services.

With an over-representation of Blacks incarcerated in the area – Tennessee Department of Corrections records note that Blacks make up 43 percent of the felony inmates, 27 of the 59 inmates currently on death row, and 10 of the 13 juveniles currently under TDOC jurisdiction.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the state American Civil Liberties Union, called the offer “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 Tennessee offer is reminiscent of a 2015 investigation that found four California prisons had performed 144 sterilizations on Black and Latino inmates – 39 of which were in clear violation of protocol and occurred either without the women’s informed consent or as a condition of their release from prison.  The violations occurred over a six-year-period between 2008 and 2014. The practice was outlawed in 2014 following an uproar over the practice.

As of July 25, the White County Sheriff’s Department reports 34 women and 38 men have signed up to undergo the sterilization procedures.