Lawmakers in Nevada and California are advancing legislation to remove “involuntary servitude” from their states’ constitutions, a move that follows four states’ bans on forced labor that passed in ballot measures last fall.
The goal of these proposals is to remove exceptions from the states’ constitutions that allow forced labor as criminal punishment. The efforts come amid a growing push among some states to scrub outdated, century-old language from their state constitutions. Last fall, voters approved similar ballot measures in Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont.
About a dozen states are pushing this year to get rid of the involuntary servitude exceptions, according to the Abolish Slavery National Network. Some advocates said this has major legal implications today, particularly in litigation related to prison labor pay and conditions.
It’s not uncommon for prisoners in California, Nevada and other states to be paid less than $1 an hour to fight fires, clean prison cells, make license plates or do yardwork at cemeteries.
Samuel Brown, who was formerly incarcerated with a life sentence, helped author an anti-involuntary servitude amendment in California last year. He said incarcerated people can be forced to do work that is unsafe and puts their health at risk. Even more, he described how terrified he was when he had to disinfect jail cells after someone tested positive for COVID-19.
Brown said the amendment that is being reintroduced this year is long overdue.
“We have an opportunity to stamp it out once and for all. We’re not going to stop until we get it done,” he said.
Permitted by U.S. Constitution
The language allowing involuntary servitude that still exists in more than a dozen state constitutions is one of the lasting legacies of chattel slavery in the United States. Colorado became the first state in recent years to revise its constitution in 2018 to ban slavery and involuntary servitude, followed by Utah and Nebraska in 2020.
Democrats in Congress have yet to pass federal legislation changing the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states: “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.” If the latest attempt wins approval in Congress, the constitutional amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of U.S. states.
In California, more than 40 supporters of the measure gathered Wednesday outside the state Capitol, where lawmakers and formerly incarcerated people talked about the impacts of forced labor.
Assemblywoman Lori D. Wilson, a Democrat representing part of Solano County, is introducing this year’s proposed amendment, hoping to have a different outcome than a failed attempt last year to pass similar legislation in the state. The Senate rejected it after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration warned that if inmates were paid the $15-per-hour minimum wage, it could cost taxpayers $1.5 billion a year.
“Slavery is wrong in all its forms, and California, of all states, should be clear in denouncing that in its constitution,” said Wilson, who chairs the California Legislative Black Caucus. It wasn’t until 1974 that the state Constitution was amended to read: “Slavery is prohibited. Involuntary servitude is prohibited except to punish crime.”
If the proposed amendment passes in the California Legislature this year by a two-thirds vote, voters would decide in November 2024 whether to adopt it. Wilson said she hopes conversations she has had with lawmakers about the economic impact of this amendment will help it get passed this year in the Legislature.
Meanwhile in Nevada, lawmakers voted unanimously Tuesday to move a measure that would change the state Constitution to ban slavery and involuntary servitude, which is prohibited “otherwise than in the punishment for crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
That puts the measure one step closer to appearing on the 2024 ballot in Nevada, after it passed unanimously during the 2021 Legislature session. Ballot measures that go through the legislative process must pass Nevada’s Legislature twice before going in front of voters. This would need a majority vote in the state Senate and Assembly to pass again.
Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts of Las Vegas, whose great-great-grandfather was born enslaved, is cosponsoring the legislation in the state.
“I believe that it’s time for us to move forward and make it clear and unequivocal that nobody will ever live through the horror of state-sanctioned slavery, or servitude ever again,” Watts said.
The ACLU of Nevada is currently in litigation related to the pay and working conditions of incarcerated women at prison firefighting camps — and the measure could protect people from “harmful, deadly conditions without being forced to labor for our sake,” said Lilith Baran, the group’s policy manager.
“This is not just a feel-good bill,” Baran said. “This has actual real implications on people’s lives.”