Criminal Justice

Voters ban slavery as a form of punishment in 4 states; what is the impact?

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Voters in Alabama, Tennessee, Oregon and Vermont have approved state constitutional amendments banning the use of slavery as a punishment.

Voters in Louisiana, however, rejected a slavery ban with wording that likely led to voter confusion.

Fox News and the New York Times have coverage of the results, while another story by the New York Times explains why the slavery question was on the ballot.

Three other states—Colorado, Nebraska and Utah—previously banned the use of slavery as punishment.

The ballot measures change state constitutions that, like the 13th Amendment, allow slavery as a punishment for crime. The 13th Amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The exception for convicted criminals is dubbed the “exceptions clause” by the New York Times and the “punishment clause” by a USA Today opinion column.

Some courts have cited that clause when allowing prisoners to be treated differently than other workers, although other justifications are more often cited.

Legal experts told the New York Times the state constitutional changes aren’t likely to have any immediate effect. But the measures “could open a door for prisoners there to challenge forced prison labor, for which most are paid pennies per hour and in some cases not at all,” the newspaper reports.

That kind of argument against forced prison labor didn’t work in Colorado, however. A state appeals court ruled in August that voters didn’t intend to ban the prison labor program, according to coverage by Colorado Politics. In any event, the appeals court said, the prison labor program didn’t amount to involuntary servitude.

In Nebraska, however, at least one jail began paying inmates $20 to $30 per week, according to the New York Times. And in Colorado, a new law pays some prisoners for their work, according to Pew’s Stateline and the Denver Post.

Colorado inmates will earn minimum wage if they are within a year of their release date and if they work for private companies under the state’s Take TWO program. Only about 100 inmates were employed by the program when the measure was signed into law.

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