More than two dozen Democrats in the United States House of Representatives and Senate on Friday introduced a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would close the “slavery clause” in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
The Senate Joint Resolution – sponsored by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) – seeks to abolish language that permits slavery as punishment for a crime:
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled (two-thirds of each House concurring therein), That the following article is proposed as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which shall be valid to all intents and purposes as part of the Constitution when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States: ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude may be imposed as a punishment for a crime.’
Merkley and his cosponsor in the House, Democratic Representative Nikema Williams of Georgia, said in a press release that the “Abolition Amendment” is long overdue and that several states have adopted similar measures with popular support:
This week, Congress passed legislation to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday commemorating and celebrating the end of slavery—which President Biden signed yesterday—but at the same time, a damaging slavery loophole still persists in the U.S. Constitution to this day.
The 13th Amendment abolished most—but not all—slavery ‘as a punishment for crime.’ The Abolition Amendment would finally finish the job started by the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, and 13th Amendment and end the morally reprehensible practice of slavery and forced labor in America, and send a clear message: in this country, no person will be stripped of their basic humanity and forced to toil for someone else’s profit.
The introduction follows a wave of bills introduced in state legislatures across the country to eliminate the Slavery Clause from state constitutions. Three of those states—Utah, Nebraska, and Colorado—referred the measure to their citizens, and large majorities in each case approved the measure, including 80 percent of voters in Utah.
They added that the “slavery clause” is a harmful relic of Jim Crow which has led to disproportionately high rates of incarcerated Black Americans and that it must be eliminated in the name of justice:
Following the ratification of the 13th Amendment, including the Slavery Clause, in 1865, Southern jurisdictions arrested Black Americans in large numbers for minor crimes, like loitering or vagrancy, codified in new ‘Black Codes,’ which were only applied to Black Americans. The Slavery Clause was then used by sheriffs to lease out imprisoned individuals to work landowners’ fields, which in some cases could have included the very same plantations where the prisoners had previously been enslaved. The practice grew in prevalence and scope to the point that, by 1898, 73% of Alabama’s state revenue came from renting out the forced labor of Black Americans.
The Slavery Clause continued to incentivize minor crime convictions and drive the over-incarceration of Black Americans throughout the Jim Crow era and forced labor on infamous prison plantations like Parchman in Mississippi and Angola in Louisiana. The corruption of our criminal justice into a system with embedded discrimination fueling mass incarceration has continued through elements of the War on Drugs, the proliferation of the three strike laws, severe plea deals, and harsh mandatory minimum policies—with continued devastating effects on communities of color.
Today’s mass incarceration policies have driven an $80 billion detention industry and a rate of American incarceration that is nothing short of a crisis, with 2.3 million prisoners—20% of the world’s incarcerated population—residing in the United States. America currently contains 1,833 state and 110 federal prisons, in addition to 1,772 juvenile facilities, 3,134 jails, and 218 immigration detention facilities. There are 80 Tribal jails.
The Abolition Amendment is supported by numerous civil rights groups, including the Abolish Slavery National Network, Abolish Private Prisons, Action Center on Race and the Economy, Alliance of Families for Justice, American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Black and Pink, Brennan Center for Justice, The Bronx Defenders, California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, California Lawyers for the Arts, Civil Rights Corps, College and Community Fellowship, Common Justice, Color of Change, Constitutional Accountability Center, CURE National, Democracy for America, #DetentionKills, Dolores Street Community Services, Dream Corps Justice, Ensuring Parole for Incarcerated Citizens, Equal Justice Initiative, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Forward Justice, Freedom United, FWD.us, Human Rights Watch, Human Trafficking Search, Immigrant Defense Advocates, Impact Justice, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Indivisible, Just Leadership USA, Justice Round Table, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, MarchON, National Religious Coalition Against Torture, One Fair Wage, Oregonians Against Slavery and Involuntary Servitude, Polaris, Presente, Prison Policy Initiative, Project South, SawariMedia, Sentencing Project, Seventh Generation Interfaith Coalition for Responsible Investment, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Southern Anti-Racism Network, Southern Poverty Law Center, The Taifa Group, Towards Justice, Transgender Law Center, Vera Institute of Justice, Verité, Vital Voices Global Partnership, Working Families Party, Worth Rises, Young Women’s Freedom Center, Zealous, and Urban Justice Center.
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Brandon is a political writer for the Hill Reporter specializing in current events, breaking news, and scientific discovery. Brandon holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Indiana University. He lives in New York City.