Voters in five states have the chance to erase slavery and indentured servitude from the books


Washington
CNN

When slavery was outlawed in the United States in 1865, the 13th Amendment included an exception.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, of which the party shall be duly convicted, shall exist in the United States, or in any place subject to their jurisdiction,” the amendment reads.

The penalty has remained on the books in more than a dozen states, though it has not been enforced since the Civil War. But next month, voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Vermont, Oregon and Tennessee will have the opportunity to expel the penalty from their state constitutions once and for all, according to a CNN review of pending ballot initiatives.

The proposed changes would either explicitly exclude slavery and indentured servitude as potential punishments or remove the terms from state law entirely.

Advocates hail the initiatives as long overdue and hope that state-level moves will one day lead to the complete removal of such language from the 13th Amendment, though some argue the move underscores a greater need to repeal rules that allow forced labor by inmates for little or no pay, a practice that has been compared to indentured servitude. None of the five changes being considered next month would eliminate prison labor.

“If their populations vote for this at the state level, then we have to believe that their congressional representatives will also have to support it as a federal measure,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a non-profit that campaigns for to remove the clause from the 13th Amendment. “The more states that do this, the more federal support we can get.”

Alabama voters will have the chance to vote on a revised state constitution in November. The revised version includes changes to remove racist language and aims to make the constitution more accessible to Alabama citizens, according to Othni Lathram, the director of the Alabama Legislative Services Agency.

Voters will be asked to answer yes or no to this proposed ballot measure: “Proposing the adoption of the Constitution of Alabama of 2022, being a re-compilation of the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, drawn up in accordance with Amendment 951, arranging the Constitution into proper articles, parts and sections, removing racist language, deleting duplicate and repealed provisions, consolidating economic development provisions, ordering all local amendments by state of application, and no other changes.”

If approved, the revised constitution would outlaw slavery altogether by amending this section:

That no form of slavery shall exist in this state; and there shall be no involuntary servitude, except for the punishment of crime, of which the party shall be duly convicted.

To:

That no form of slavery shall exist in this state; and there must be no involuntary servitude.

Louisiana’s current constitution allows slavery and indentured servitude as punishment for a crime.

Louisiana voters will be asked to mark yes or no to the question: “Do you support an amendment prohibiting the use of involuntary servitude except in the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice?”

If approved, the new constitution would say: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited.”

Oregon’s ballot aims to remove “all language creating an exception and making the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude unequivocal.”

If approved by voters, the Oregon Constitution would be amended to remove the penalty exception and allow for “programs to be ordered as part of sentencing,” such as programs for education, counseling, treatment and community service.

Democratic state representative Barbara Smith Warner said the intent was not to eliminate the prison industry, though she added, “if this leads to discussions about the prison labor movement, I would say, so much the better.”

Tennessee’s measure calls for slavery and indentured servitude to be “forever prohibited,” while including, “nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a felony.”

Tennessee Senator Raumesh Akbari, who sponsored the resolution, said its passage would “move one step closer to reconciling the consequences of the slavery exception.”

Vermont, which was the first American colony to abolish slavery outright, seeks to amend their constitution by removing the exemption clause.

If approved by the voters, the Vermont Constitution would read: “That all persons are born equal, free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent, and unalienable rights, among others, to enjoy and defend life and liberty, to acquire, hold, and protect property. , and pursue and obtain happiness and security; therefore, slavery and indentured servitude in every form are forbidden.”

When he announced the proposal in June, Republican Gov. Phil Scott called it a “meaningful” move, but Democrat Dick McCormack, the lone no vote in the state Senate, dismissed it as “merely symbolic” and an “overwhelming response “. to the legitimate demands of black people.”

McCormack said Vermont’s constitutional clause was “challenged by the national prohibition of slavery with the 13th Amendment” and argued that the proposal amounted to putting “a smiley face on the Constitution.”

“I think ending prison labor is a reasonable policy proposition, and we should go about it,” McCormack told CNN. “But Prop 2 doesn’t end prison labor. It doesn’t fix the 13th Amendment.”

The five states are the latest to push to eradicate the penalties. Nebraska and Utah voters decided to remove language allowing slavery as a punishment from their constitutions in the 2020 general election.

And in 2018, Colorado voters approved a ballot measure to amend their state constitution to remove the ability to enslave someone for a crime. Like the states voting next month, the amended language did not change prison employment allowances, and earlier this year, two inmates who claimed their constitutional rights were violated under the state’s revised constitution sued the state, including Democratic Gov. Jared Polis.

The lawsuit alleges that the plaintiffs were forced to work by being threatened with penalties such as loss of earnings or good time for early release if they did not. The suit contends that the spirit of the amended constitution prohibited “compulsory” prison labor, though state lawyers have requested dismissal of the lawsuit, saying withholding “privileges” is not akin to slavery or indentured servitude.

Polis’ office declined to comment to CNN about the lawsuit, which is still ongoing.

Updating the 13th Amendment is a daunting task, requiring two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of state legislatures to agree. But state-level advocates hope their latest effort can gain enough momentum to prompt such a change.

“The hope is that a critical mass of states will remove the exceptions in their state constitutions and provide a strong foundation for a movement to repeal and replace the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Theeda Murphy of the No Exceptions Prison Collective told CNN.

In recent years, congressional Democrats have proposed a joint resolution to remove the exemption from the 13th Amendment, but the effort has been unsuccessful.

That hasn’t deterred the effort, which has been proposed again this session and attracted support from 10 Republican co-sponsors in the House.

“The loophole in our Constitution’s ban on slavery not only allowed slavery to continue, but launched an era of discrimination and mass incarceration that continues to this day,” said Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat who introduced the amendment in Congress this session. CNN. “To live up to our nation’s promise of justice for all, we must remove the Slave Clause from our Constitution.”

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