Democratic Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Democratic Missouri Rep. William Lacy Clay introduced the Abolition Amendment on Wednesday which would amend the 13th Amendment to explicitly prohibit all forms of slavery.
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
The ‘Abolition Amendment‘ introduced by the Merkley and Clay would amend the 13th Amendment to read “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude may be imposed as a punishment for a crime.”
“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,” Merkley said in a statement. “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.”
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery—but not entirely. There was a loophole in that ban, which has weaponized our justice system against Black Americans ever since. For justice to thrive, it’s time to #EndTheLoophole. That’s what this amendment does. https://t.co/e1Iv5w1AyX
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) December 2, 2020
“Slavery is incompatible with justice. No slavery, no exceptions,” he continued. (RELATED: Alabama Votes To Cut Racist Phrases From State Constitution)
“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,” Clay said in a statement. “No American should ever be subject to involuntary servitude, even if they are incarcerated.”
Between 1866-1869, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida began leasing out convicts, according to the organization End Slavery Now. Along with a host of other ‘crimes’ created under vagrancy statues, Jim Crow, and Black Codes, by 1877 it was a crime to be unemployed and would be punished by arrest, according to End Slavery Now.
And by 1898, 73% of Alabama’s annual state revenue was reported to have come from convict leasing, according to the report.
Merkley and Clay note the Punishment Clause of the 13th Amendment facilitated mass incarceration that stemmed from slavery due to a financial incentive for contracting out convicts.
“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,” Deputy Director fo the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch Laura Pitter said in a statement. “It is long past time that Congress excise this language from the U.S. Constitution which should begin to put an end to the abusive practices derived from it.”
Incarcerated workers manufacture clothing, assemble furniture and even help fight wildfires, with the annual value of prison labor commodities topping $2 billion, according to the Associated Press.
The proposal comes nearly a month after Nebraska and Utah voters approved initiatives amending their state constitutions to remove language that permits slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment.