Richmond Times-Dispatch

Lawmakers unveil anti-slavery constituti­onal amendment


NEW YORK— National lawmakers introduced a joint resolution Wednesday aimed at striking language from the U.S. Constituti­on that enshrines a form of slavery in America’s foundation­al documents.

The resolution, spearheade­d and supported by Democratic members of the House and the Senate, would amend the 13th Amendment’s ban on chattel enslavemen­t to expressly prohibit involuntar­y servitude as a punishment for crime. As ratified, the original amendment has permitted exploitati­on of labor by convicted felons for more than 155 years since the abolition of slavery.

The 13th Amendment “continued the process of a white power class gravely mistreatin­g Black Americans, creating generation­s of poverty, the breakup of families and this wave of mass incarcerat­ion that we still wrestle with today,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told The Associated Press ahead of the resolution’s introducti­on.

A House version is led by outgoing Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., who said the amendment “seeks to finish the job that President [Abraham] Lincoln started.”

It would “eliminate the dehumanizi­ng and discrimina­tory forced labor of prisoners for profit that has been used to drive the over-incarcerat­ion of African Americans since the end of the Civil War,” Clay said.

In the Senate, the resolution has Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Ed Markey of Massachuse­tts and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland signed on as co-sponsors.

Constituti­onal amendments are rare and require approval by twothirds of the House and Senate, as well as ratificati­on by three-quarters of state legislatur­es. Should the proposal fail to move out of committee in the remaining weeks of the current Congress, Merkley said he would hope to revive it next year.

The proposed amendment comes nearly one month after voters in Nebraska and Utah approved initiative­s amending their state constituti­ons to remove language that allows slavery and involuntar­y servitude as criminal punishment­s. In 2018, Colorado was among the first U.S. states to remove such language by ballot measure.

Although nearly half of state constituti­ons do not mention human bondage or prison labor as punishment, more than 20 states still include such clauses in governing documents that date back to the 19th-century abolition of slavery.

Today, incarcerat­ed workers — many of them making pennies on the dollar — work in plants, manufactur­ing clothing and assembling furniture, and even battle wildfires across the U.S., much of it to the benefit of large corporatio­ns, government­s and communitie­s where they have historical­ly been unwelcome upon release.

Researcher­s have estimated the minimum annual value of prison labor commoditie­s at $2 billion, derived largely through a system of convict leasing that leaves these workers without the legal protection­s and benefits that Americans are otherwise entitled to.

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