Voters in five states have a chance to wipe slavery and indentured servitude off the books


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

« Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime the party of which has been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States or any place subject to the jurisdiction thereof, » the amendment states.

The penalty remained on the books in more than a dozen states, though it hasn’t been enforced since the Civil War. But next month, voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Vermont, Oregon and Tennessee will have the chance to exorcise punishment from their state constitutions once and for all, according to a CNN review of the initiatives. pending vote.

The proposed amendments would explicitly exclude slavery and indentured servitude as potential penalties or remove the terms from state law altogether.

Supporters hail the initiatives as long overdue and hope that state-level movements will one day lead to the removal of such language from the 13th Amendment altogether, though some argue the movement underscores a greater need to lift restrictions. rules allowing forced labor of inmates for little or no pay, a practice that has been equated with indentured servitude. None of the five changes being considered next month would eliminate prison work.

“If their populations vote for this at the state level, we have to believe that their representatives in Congress will also have to support it as a federal measure,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a nonprofit organization. who is campaigning to remove the 13th Amendment clause. « The more states that do this, the more federal support we can get. »

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

Voters will be asked to respond yes or no to this proposed measure on the ballot: « To propose the adoption of the Alabama Constitution of 2022, which is a recompilation of the Alabama Constitution of 1901, prepared in accordance with the 951 Amendment, arranging the constitution in due form articles, parts and sections, removing racist language, removing duplicated and repealed provisions, consolidating provisions regarding economic development, organizing all local amendments by county of application and making no other changes.

If the revised constitution is approved, it would ban slavery by amending this article:

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


That no form of slavery will exist in this state; and there will be no involuntary bondage.

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

Voters in Louisiana will be asked to answer yes or no to the question: « Do you support an amendment to prohibit the use of involuntary servitude, except insofar as it applies to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice? »

If approved, the new constitution would say, « Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited. »

Oregon’s election measure seeks to remove « any language that creates an exception and makes the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude unequivocal. »

If approved by voters, Oregon’s constitution would be amended to remove the sentencing exception and allow « programs to be ordered as part of sentencing, » such as those for education , counselling, treatment and community service.

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

The Tennessee measure calls for slavery and indentured servitude to be « prohibited forever » while including, « nothing in this section prohibits an inmate from working when he has been duly convicted of a felony » .

Tennessee State Senator Raumesh Akbari, who sponsored the resolution, said its passage « would go one step closer to reconciling the consequences of the slavery exception. »

Vermont, which was the first American colony to abolish slavery outright, is seeking to amend its constitution by removing the exception clause.

If approved by the voters, Vermont’s constitution would read: « That all persons be born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent, and inalienable rights, among which are the enjoyment and defense of life and liberty. , the acquisition, possession and protection of property. , and seek and obtain happiness and security; therefore, slavery and indentured servitude in any form is prohibited.

When he announced the proposal in June, Republican Governor Phil Scott called it a « meaningful » decision, but Democrat Dick McCormack, the only negative vote against the initiative in the state Senate, rejected it. as « merely symbolic » and a « disappointing response ». to the legitimate demands of blacks.

McCormack said Vermont’s constitutional clause was « rendered moot by the nation’s 13th Amendment ban on slavery » and argued that the proposal amounted to putting « a smiley face on the constitution. »

« I think ending prison labor is a reasonable political proposal, and we should start, » McCormack told CNN. “But Prop 2 doesn’t end prison work. This does not fix the 13th Amendment.

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

And in 2018, Colorado voters approved a ballot measure to change their state’s constitution to remove the ability to enslave someone for a crime. As states vote next month, the amended wording did not alter prison employment benefits, and earlier this year two prisoners who argued their constitutional rights had been violated under the revised constitution of the state have sued the state, including Democratic Gov. Jared Polis.

The lawsuit alleges that the plaintiffs were forced to work under threat of penalties such as loss of earned time or time off for early release if they failed to do so. The lawsuit argues that the spirit of the amended constitution prohibited ‘compulsory’ prison labor, though state attorneys have asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed, saying the denial of ‘privileges’ does not apply. does not amount to slavery or indentured servitude.

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

Updating the 13th Amendment is a daunting task that requires the agreement of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the state legislatures. But state-level advocates are hoping their recent efforts can build enough momentum to bring about such change.

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

In recent years, congressional Democrats have introduced a joint resolution to remove the 13th Amendment exception, but efforts have been unsuccessful.

That didn’t deter the effort, which was proposed again this session and drew support from 10 House Republican co-sponsors.

« 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, » the senator said. of Oregon’s Jeff Merkley, a Democrat who introduced the amendment to Congress this session. CNN. « To live up to our nation’s promise of justice for all, we must remove the slavery clause from our Constitution. »

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