December 02, 2020

Van Hollen, Merkley, Clay Propose Constitutional Amendment to Close Slavery Loophole in 13th Amendment

Today 900,000 individuals in the U.S. still forced to work for others’ profit

Today, U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative William Lacy Clay (D-MO-1) introduced 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 13thAmendment 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.

“Systemic 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.

“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 Clay. 

“As 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. 

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.

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. 

Van Hollen, Merkley, and Clay were joined in the introduction by U.S. Senators Edward J. Markey (D-MA), 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.