In 2019, H.J.R.8 was passed unanimously by the state legislature which allowed the amendment to be placed on the 2020 ballot. Changing the Utah constitution requires the legislature to pass an amendment by at least two-thirds in both the state House and Senate and requires a majority of voters to approve it.
What does the Utah Constitution currently say about slavery? How will Amendment C change it?
Article I, Section 21 of Utah’s Constitution reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within this State.”
Amendment C will change Article I, Section 21 in two ways:
It removes the exception clause to subsection (1): “except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” so that it reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist within this State.” Period.
It adds language to clarify that “Subsection (1) does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of the criminal justice system.”
Why was this exception for slavery in the 13th Amendment and state constitution in the first place?
Utah’s Constitution was drafted in 1895, prior to statehood. Its language regarding slavery was mostly copied from the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The 13th Amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude,exceptas 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.”
In 1865, immediately after the Civil War, the 13th Amendment was difficult to pass, and the exception made it more palatable to slave states. Many states simply echo the same language in their state constitutions, or say nothing, allowing the 13th Amendment exception to stand.
Do other state constitutions have similar exceptions for slavery?
Yes. Some states have language identical to, or similar to the exception in the 13th Amendment. Others make no mention of slavery or involuntary servitude. Some states abolish slavery only, or, have other language that would need to be replaced with full abolition. The Abolish Slavery National Network has more information here.
Why is this exception in the 13th Amendment and in state constitutions so problematic?
The exception in the 13th amendment allows actual slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States, as long as it can be described as a punishment for crime. This is a moral wrong.
After passage of the 13th Amendment, the exception was immediately exploited by many states to continue slavery in another form. So-called “Black Codes” were imposed by southern states that allowed former slaves to be arrested for minor crimes such as vagrancy and then put to work in conditions not much different than slavery. Southern states also exploited the exception through a system of forced penal labor called “Convict Leasing.” In 1898, for example, the state of Alabama received more than 70% of its state revenue from convict leasing, essentially another form of slavery.
This language in our constitution was used to uphold a racist ideology that upheld white supremacy in our country for centuries. The criminal justice system was used as a tool to impede Black Americans from achieving equality in American society.
It should be noted that this exception was also a social class issue, as indentured servitude or involuntary servitude impacted poor white people too.
Finally, having this exception in our constitution means that we never fully abolished constitutional slavery, and it is past time for us to finish that task.
Will removing this exception undermine the ability for criminal offenders to do community service?
No. Prior Federal court decisions have already ruled that court-ordered community service does not violate the 13th Amendment's prohibition against slavery or involuntary servitude. (Education Week,Los Angeles Times).
Amendment C will add language that makes clear that the change will not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of Utah’s criminal justice system.
Many other states have no explicit mention of slavery in their constitutions. And others that have voted to remove similar language condoning slavery have experienced no negative impacts to their states corrections systems.
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. It 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 healing symbol in these divided times, and as a protection for the future.
Is “slavery” practiced at Utah prisons?
Utah inmates are paid a relatively small amount (a few dollars an hour) for labor. Prison work programs are critically important to help convicted inmates develop important life and work skills. Utah inmates are not forced to work, but most voluntarily choose towork or enroll in a variety of educational programs.
How is removing the exception for slavery from the constitution helpful for those incarcerated?
No matter what one thinks our prison system should be, we can all agree it should not be 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 moves us forward.
How can I support the Utah Coalition to Abolish Slavery?
Please donate, send a comment by contacting us through this website, ask your organization to endorse, follow us on social media, and spread the word to other Utahns.