Five new states are set to have their voters decide whether or not they want to close loopholes that allow forced labor, or slavery of people who have committed certain crimes. Let’s take a look at why this conversation is incredibly important.
Long Term Goal
While there are a few states who have currently changed the wording of their laws to abolish forced labor, there are still more than fifteen who have yet to do so. In a couple weeks, midterm elections will take place. Five new states- Oregon, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and Vermont will vote on this important matter. However, that’s not where the work stops. An article written for aljazeera.com explains, “The effort is part of a national push to amend the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which bans enslavement or involuntary servitude except as a form of criminal punishment. That exception has long permitted the exploitation of work performed by convicted felons.”
Tactics Used Historically
Forced prison labor though incarceration was a tactic used historically by law enforcement to re-enslave people. The above mentioned article goes on to say, “Scrutiny over prison labour has existed for decades, but the 13th Amendment’s loophole in particular encouraged former Confederate states after the Civil War to devise new ways to maintain the dynamics of slavery. They used restrictive measures known as the “Black codes”, because they nearly always targeted African Americans, to criminalise benign interactions such as talking too loudly or not yielding to whites on the sidewalk. Those targeted would end up in custody for minor actions, effectively enslaving them again.”
The language being used to propose these changes is to the effect of, “We understand that those who are incarcerated cannot be forced to work without pay, but we should not create a situation where they won’t be able to work at all.”
Those who oppose closing the forced labor loopholes are doing so because of the costs. Specifically, California governor Gavin Newsom shared concerns about eliminating forced labor as a criminal punishment because of the economic impact it would have on the state. In a large area like California, it would cost billions to pay inmates an appropriate hourly wage. This is one of the largest reasons for state’s opposing the proposed changes.
Aside from getting the votes needed to make desired changes, getting the wording correct is another concern. Some states are proposing new language that could still leave room for forced labor in the future. Amending these documents not only takes a lot of time, any changes must be passed by a majority vote. It’s difficult to make any changes; therefore, the wording needs to be correct the first time it’s amended.
As the United States grapples with its’ long history with slavery, it will be interesting to see how the midterm elections affect change for the future. Voting to eliminate forced labor is the next step in truly abolishing slavery in this country.