Indisputably racist exception permitting
slavery as punishment for crime has fueled systemic racism in criminal justice
for 150 years
Today 900,000 individuals in the U.S. still
forced to work for others’ profit
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator
Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) today joined Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Representative William Lacy Clay
(D-MO-1) to introduce the Abolition
Amendment, which would strike the ‘Punishment Clause’ of the 13th
Amendment in order to finally abolish slavery in the United States.
The 13th Amendment abolished most—but not all—slavery,
permitting slavery or involuntary servitude “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.
we take on the long and difficult challenge of rooting out systemic racism in
our nation, ending the slavery loophole in the 13th Amendment is critical step
in that challenge. Slavery is our nation’s original sin and this loophole has
been exploited for far too long to criminalize Black and Brown Americans. I am
proud to cosponsor the Abolition Amendment that pushes us as a nation to
address our failures and create a path towards true justice for all Americans,”
said Senator Markey.
“America was founded on beautiful principles of
equality and justice and horrific realities of slavery and white supremacy, and
if we are ever going to fully deliver on the principles we have to directly
confront the realities,” said Senator Merkley. “The exception to the 13th
Amendment’s ban on slavery corrupted criminal justice into a tool of racist
control of Black Americans and other people of color, and we see that legacy
every day in police encounters, courtrooms, and prisons throughout our country.
Slavery is incompatible with justice. No slavery, no exceptions.”
“Our Abolition Amendment seeks to finish the job that
President Lincoln started by ending the punishment clause in the 13th Amendment
to 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. No American should ever be subject
to involuntary servitude, even if they are incarcerated,” said Congressman
racism, in all its ugly forms, must be rooted out and eliminated from American
institutions. This change to the 13th Amendment will finally
fully rid our nation of a form of legalized slavery and prevent the shameful
use of forced labor in our prison systems. This is a long overdue step on our
road to a more just and equal country for all,” said Senator Van Hollen.
Following the ratification of the 13th
Amendment, including the Punishment 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 Punishment Clause was then used by sheriffs to lease out
imprisoned individuals to work landowners’ fields, which in some cases included
the very same plantations where they had 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 Punishment Clause’s facilitating and incentivizing
of minor crime convictions continued to drive the over-incarceration of Black
Americans throughout the Jim Crow era. Ultimately, by creating a financial
incentive for mass incarceration, it also continued to fan the flames of the
War on Drugs and the proliferation of ‘three strike’ laws, severe plea deals,
and harsh mandatory minimum policies, which have had a disproportionate impact
on communities of color in America for generations.
Those 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.
“This change is long overdue. The punishment clause in
the 13th amendment is a legacy of slavery that has allowed people
incarcerated, disproportionately Black and brown, to be exploited for decades.
It is long past time that Congress excise this language from the US
Constitution which should begin to put an end the abusive practices derived
from it,” said Deputy Director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch Laura
“While the U.S. government condemns other countries
for permitting and even encouraging forced labor, our own system of prison
labor often contradicts our values - and our own laws against labor
trafficking. We are grateful to Senator Merkley and Representative Lacy Clay
for taking this step toward ending forced labor and labor trafficking in the
U.S. prison system,” said Polaris CEO Catherine Chen.
systematic exploitation of incarcerated people is immoral. Incarceration is not
a justification for inhumane compensation. This relic of slavery strips people
of their dignity and harms their chances of successful rehabilitation and
re-entry. Enough is enough. I’m proud to support Senator Merkley in his goal to put an end to forced labor and end the
slavery loophole once and for all,” said Dream Corps CEO Nisha Anand.
the founding, Americans have worked to make our union ever more perfect,
bending the arc of our Constitution further toward progress. This
Amendment—prohibiting the enslavement and involuntary servitude of persons
convicted of crimes—is a painfully overdue continuation of the effort to make
us more equal, more inclusive, and more free. We simply cannot allow any
exception to the prohibition against slavery and involuntary servitude to
persist in our nation’s governing charter,” said Constitutional
Accountability Center President Elizabeth Wydra.
want to thank Sen. Merkley and Rep. Clay for their leadership on this important
racial justice issue, and for shining a light on something that is not just
about a symbol or a vestige of the past, but something that reverberates and
has consequences today,” said Clint Odom, Senior Vice President for Policy
and Advocacy, National Urban League.
Nebraskans were unaware our state constitution still contained language that
permitted slavery and involuntary servitude, but when given the opportunity to
make a meaningful change, to take a step towards righting a wrong, we did –
because we understood this isn’t a partisan issue but a moral one,” said
Vote for Eliminating Slavery in Nebraska Treasurer Melina Cohen.
The Abolition Amendment is supported by The
Sentencing Project, Polaris, the Abolish Slavery National Network, the
Constitutional Accountability Center, Amnesty International, the
Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Human Rights Watch, Color of Change, the Justice
Round Table Coalition, Indivisible, Democracy For America, International CURE,
Dream Corps, and Alliance of Families for Justice.
Merkley and Clay were joined in the introduction by
U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and
Bernard Sanders (I-VT), and by U.S. Representatives Cedric Richmond (D-LA-2),
Katherine Clark (D-MA-5), André Carson (D-IN-7),
Danny K. Davis (D-IL-7), Marc Veasey (D-TX-33), Alcee Hastings (D-FL-20), Raúl
Grijalva (D-AZ-3), Sylvia Garcia (D-TX-29), Frederica Wilson (D-FL-24), Nanette
Diaz Barragán (D-CA-44), David Trone (D-MD-6),
Abigail Spanberger (D-VA-7), Deb Haaland (D-NM-1), and Gwen Moore (D-WI-4).
The full text of the legislation is available here
A summary can be found here