NASHVILLE (AP) Soon, people in five states will decide whether or not to close loopholes that made it easier for criminals to force people to work.
None of the ideas would make the states’ jails change right away, but they could lead to legal challenges over how they use prison labor, which is still a problem in the U.S. because of slavery.
The campaign is part of a larger effort across the country to change the 13th Amendment, which says that slavery is illegal except as a punishment for a crime. Because of this exception, people who have been convicted can work.
“The thought that you could ever finish the sentence ‘Slavery is okay when…’ has to rip your soul out,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a group that fights to get rid of the language in the amendment that says convict labor is okay.
Nearly 20 states let slave labor and forced labor be used as punishments for crimes. In 2018, Colorado took the language out of its founding documents. Two years later, Nebraska and Utah did the same.
In November, the people of Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont will vote on the issue.
When a fellow Democrat from Memphis told Sen. Raumesh Akbari about the slavery exception in the Tennessee Constitution, she was shocked.
When she found the problem, she said, “We have to fix it right away.” “Our constitution should represent state values”
To change a constitution, you have to go through a long list of steps. Akbari suggested changes for 2019. The GOP-controlled General Assembly needed a majority vote in one two-year legislative cycle and two-thirds in the next. The change could be on the next ballot for governor.
Akbari worked with the state’s Department of Correction to make sure that her plan wouldn’t make it illegal for prisoners to work.
Voters in Tennessee will decide if they want to ban slavery and other forms of forced labor. This clause doesn’t stop a person who has been convicted from working.
“We know that prisoners can’t be forced to work for free, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t let them work,” said Akbari.
Because of the same worries about prison labor, the Democrats who run California’s legislature voted against an amendment to get rid of indentured servitude as a possible punishment for crime. The office of Gov. Gavin Newsom said it could cost the state billions of dollars to pay prison inmates the minimum wage.
After the Civil War, the loophole in the 13th Amendment made it easier for former Confederate states to keep slaves. They used “black codes” to punish things like talking too loudly or not giving way on the sidewalk, which isn’t even bad things. Those who were targeted would be sent to jail for small crimes, making them slaves again.
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Today: If the measures pass, jailed workers will still only get a few cents for each dollar they work. If a prisoner refuses to work, he or she may lose phone calls, visits, and even parole.
Alabama wants voters to get rid of racist language and a section on convict labor that is similar to the one in Tennessee.
In 1777, Vermont was the first state to ban slavery, but its constitution still allows for forced labor. Its proposed change would get rid of the exception clause and replace it with the sentence “Slavery and involuntary servitude are always illegal in this State.”
Oregon’s proposed change gets rid of its exemption clause and adds language that lets courts or probation/parole agencies make people do things other than going to jail.
Concerns that the new language might make things worse have led to organized opposition to Louisiana’s plan to change the law. Rep. Edmond Jordan, who was one of the first people to support it, asked voters last week to reject it.
Council for a Better Louisiana pointed out that the language could, in theory, allow slavery and forced labor.
The Constitution of Louisiana says that slavery and forced labor are illegal, except as a punishment for a crime. “Slavery and forced labor are against the law, but not in criminal justice,” the amendment would say.
The group asked people to vote “No” and lawmakers to try again, using the language on the ballot in Tennessee as an example.
People who don’t like the amendment say they want to keep exemption clauses. Abolish Slavery National Network’s state operations director, Max Parthas, said, “If this fails, it will be used against us.”
Parthas says that voting yes is right because slavery is still a problem in America.
He said, “The United States has never made slavery illegal.” “I think it would be interesting to see what it looks like.”