Slavery is on the ballot in Oregon and 4 other states

More than 150 years after slaves were freed in the United States, voters in five states will soon decide whether to close loopholes that led to the spread of another form of slavery – the forced labor of people convicted of certain crimes.

Neither proposal would force immediate changes in the states’ prisons, though they could lead to legal challenges related to how they use prison labor, a lasting imprint of slavery’s legacy on the entire United States.

The effort is part of a national push to amend the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which banned slavery or involuntary servitude except as a form of criminal punishment. This exemption has long permitted the exploitation of labor by convicted felons.

“The idea that you could ever finish the phrase ‘slavery is okay when . . .’ has to tear your soul out, and I think that’s what makes this a fight that ignores political lines and brings us together because it feels so clear,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a criminal justice advocacy group pushing to remove the amendment’s penalty provision.

Nearly 20 states have constitutions that include language allowing slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal penalties. In 2018, Colorado was the first to remove the language from its charter by ballot, followed by Nebraska and Utah two years later.

In November, versions of the question will go before voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont.

Late. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat from Memphis, was shocked when a lawmaker told her about the slavery exception in the Tennessee Constitution and immediately began working to replace the language.

“When I found out this exemption existed, I thought, ‘We’ve got to fix this, and we’ve got to fix it right away,'” she said. “Our constitution should reflect the values ​​and beliefs of our state.”

Constitutions require long and technically difficult steps before they can be adjusted. Akbari first proposed changes in 2019; the GOP-dominated General Assembly would then have to pass the changes by a majority in one two-year legislative term and then pass it again with at least two-thirds approval in the next. The amendment can then go to a vote in the year of the next gubernatorial election.

Akbari also had to work with the state Department of Corrections to ensure inmate labor would not be banned under her proposal.

The proposed language going before Tennessean voters more clearly distinguishes between the two: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working after the inmate has been duly convicted of a felony.”

“We understand that those who are imprisoned cannot be forced to work without pay, but we should not create a situation where they will not be able to work at all,” Akbari said.

Similar concerns about the financial impact of prison labor led California’s Democratic-led Legislature to reject an amendment eliminating indentured servitude as a possible punishment for crime after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration predicted it could require the state to pay billions of dollars in minimum wage for prison. inmates.

Scrutiny of prison labor has existed for decades, but the 13th Amendment loophole in particular spurred former Confederate states after the Civil War to devise new ways to maintain the dynamics of slavery. They used restrictive measures, known as the “Black Codes” because they almost always targeted black people, to criminalize benign interactions such as talking too loudly or not yielding on the sidewalk. Those targeted would end up in custody for minor acts, effectively enslaving them again.

Fast forward to today: Many incarcerated workers are cashing in on the dollar, which is not expected to change if the proposals succeed. Inmates who refuse to work can be denied phone calls or visits with family, punished with solitary confinement and even denied parole.

Alabama is asking voters to delete all racist language from its constitution and to remove and replace a section on convict labor similar to what Tennessee has had in its constitution.

Vermont often boasts of being the first state in the nation to outlaw slavery in 1777, but its constitution still allows for involuntary servitude in a handful of circumstances. Its proposed amendment would replace the current exemption clause with language that says “slavery and indentured servitude in any form is prohibited.”

Oregon’s proposed amendment repeals its exceptions clause while adding language that allows a court or probation or parole agency to order alternatives to incarceration as part of sentencing.

Louisiana is the only state so far to have the proposed change draw organized opposition due to concerns that the replacement language could make matters worse. Even one of its original sponsors has second thoughts — Democratic Rep. Edmond Jordan told The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate last week that he is urging voters to reject it.

The nonprofit Council for a Better Louisiana warned that the wording could technically allow slavery again, as well as continue involuntary servitude.

Louisiana’s constitution now states: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for a crime.” The amendment would change it to: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, (but this) shall not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”

“This amendment is an example of why getting the language right is so important when presenting constitutional amendments to voters,” the nonprofit group said in a statement, urging voters to vote “No” and lawmakers to try again , pointing to Tennessee’s ballot language. as a possible template.

Supporters of the amendment say such criticism is part of a campaign to keep opt-out clauses in place.

“If this doesn’t go through, it will be used as a weapon against us,” said Max Parthas, state operations director for the Abolish Slavery National Network.

The question stands as a reminder of how slavery continues to confound Americans, and Parthas says that’s reason enough to vote yes.

“We have never seen a single day in the United States when slavery was not legal,” he said. “We want to see what it looks like, and I think it’s worth it.”

— By KIMBERLEE KRUESI Associated Press

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