What does the California state constitution currently say about slavery and involuntary servitude? How will ACA3 change it?
California’s state constitution says, “Slavery is prohibited. Involuntary servitude is prohibited except to punish crime.” ACA3 proposes to change the language to read, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited.”
Why abolish involuntary servitude?
Involuntary servitude is essentially slavery by another name, and that’s why it was included in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in 1865: as a compromise to get Southern legislators to pass it while creating a loophole that enabled Southern states to continue the practice of forced labor of Black Americans after the Civil war. By letting it remain in California’s constitution today, we are enabling a back-door loophole that allows slavery by calling it something else. Slavery—by any name—is wrong and should have no place in California.
Is this a partisan issue?
Not at all. Three states have already voted to abolish slavery and involuntary servitude—Colorado, Utah, and Nebraska—and in all three cases the initiative had wide bipartisan support and was placed on the ballot by a unanimous vote of legislators, regardless of party.
Why is the slavery exception so problematic?
- The slavery exception allows involuntary servitude and forced labor—other terms for “slavery”—in California, as long as it can be described as a punishment for crime. Slavery in any form is morally wrong.
- The exception has been abused before and can always be abused until it is removed.
- The existence of this language in our constitution means we have never fully abolished slavery in California, and it is past time for us to finish that task.
Do other state constitutions have similar exceptions for slavery?
Yes. Some states, like California, abolish slavery only, or have other language that would need to be replaced with full abolition. Some states make no mention of slavery or involuntary servitude, which makes the 13th Amendment’s slavery exception the law of the land. The Abolish Slavery National Network has more information here.
Why was this exception for slavery in the 13th Amendment and in state constitutions included in the first place?
- In 1865, the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was difficult to pass. The exception gave Southern states cover to claim they had abolished slavery while, at the same time, allowing them to craft laws that discriminated against Black Americans and institute a shadow slavery system that was perfectly legal.
- Formerly enslaved people were arrested for minor crimes such as vagrancy and then put to work in conditions not much different than slavery. In 1898, for example, the state of Alabama got more than 70% of its state revenue from convict leasing, which is essentially another form of slavery.
- Today, many states still simply echo the language of the 13th Amendment in their state constitutions or make no reference to slavery or involuntary servitude, allowing the 13th Amendment exception to stand.
Does slavery still exist today?
- Slave-like conditions still exist in many prisons, including private prisons that profit off of forced labor or warehouse bodies for profit. Slavery in any form should not be tolerated, whether in prisons, through human trafficking, through forced labor, or in the form of wage theft.
- Laws allowing convict leasing were gradually phased out through the 1940s, but there is no constitutional barrier to that practice being revived. In fact, it would not clearly violate the law for prisoners to be placed on an auction block and sold as slaves to the highest bidder, as long as it could be framed as punishment for crime. The abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude will never be complete until the exception is gone.
Is this merely a symbolic gesture? Will changing the language change anything significant?
- Abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude will provide constitutional backing for addressing and preventing slavery and slave-like conditions in any circumstances where they occur.
- Changing the constitution does not immediately create or eliminate state or federal laws, but it provides a new context for changes in law.
- Words matter. Our constitution is our most important moral and legal institutional document. It is the foundation of our society’s principles and laws and should reflect our true values. Removing this exception for slavery sends a powerful message that we all are indeed “created equal” under the constitution.
- Even if it were primarily symbolic, it would be worth abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude as a symbol of healing in these divided times, and as a protection for the future.
Would abolition put an end to prison work programs or community service?
- No. Work programs and community service can be structured in ways that do not constitute slavery or involuntary servitude, and desirable work programs or job training would clearly not be prohibited. In fact, California claims that it wants to help rehabilitate incarcerated individuals through skills training and other beneficial programming in preparation for reintegration in society, and involuntary servitude prevents the state from carrying out that aspect of its mission.
- As an example, Colorado, Utah and Nebraska have abolished constitutional slavery and involuntary servitude, and this positive move has not negatively affected these sorts of programs in those states.
- Whatever our criminal justice system may be, it should not be slavery or involuntary servitude.
How is removing the exception for slavery from the constitution helpful for those who are incarcerated?
- We can have a healthy debate about what our prison system should look like, but we can all agree that it should not include slavery.
- Removing the exception opens the door to new conversations about what kind of corrections system we want, and how people who are incarcerated are thought of and treated.
- As long as this exception remains in our constitution, slavery or involuntary servitude in some form can be reinstated as punishment for a crime. Removing the exception closes off that future, establishes that slavery is inconsistent with California values, and shows that we have evolved since 1865.