Ahead of Juneteenth, Merkley, Williams Propose Constitutional Amendment to Close Slavery Loophole in 13th Amendment
Indisputably racist exception permitting slavery as punishment for crime has fueled systemic racism in criminal justice for over 150 years
Washington, D.C. June 18 – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and Congresswoman Nikema Williams (GA-05) have introduced the Abolition Amendment, which would strike the ‘Slavery Clause’ of the 13th Amendment that allows slavery to continue in the United States. Congress passed legislation to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday commemorating and celebrating the end of slavery—which President Biden signed —but at the same time, a damaging slavery loophole still persists in the U.S. Constitution to this day.
The 13th Amendment abolished most—but not all—slavery “as a punishment for crime.” The Abolition Amendment would finally finish the job started by the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, and 13th Amendment 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.
The introduction follows a wave of bills introduced in state legislatures across the country to eliminate the Slavery Clause from state constitutions. Three of those states—Utah, Nebraska, and Colorado—referred the measure to their citizens, and large majorities in each case approved the measure, including 80 percent of voters in Utah.
“This country was founded on the beautiful principles of equality and justice—principles that have never been compatible with the horrific realities of slavery and white supremacy,” said Merkley. “The loophole in our constitution’s ban on slavery not only allowed slavery to continue but launched an era of discrimination and mass incarceration that continues to this day. To live up to our nation’s promise of justice for all, we must eliminate the Slavery Clause from our constitution.”
“The Abolition Amendment is one step closer to achieving true justice and equality for all. States are amending their constitutions to finally abolish slavery in all forms, and Congress will lead the way and finally abolish involuntary servitude in America,” said Williams. “We are in a period of reckoning with our country’s history and a lot of that history is marked with racism and systems of oppression. Eliminating the loophole in the 13th Amendment that allows for slavery is another opportunity to do that.”
Following the ratification of the 13th Amendment, including the Slavery 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 Slavery Clause was then used by sheriffs to lease out imprisoned individuals to work landowners’ fields, which in some cases could have included the very same plantations where the prisoners had previously 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 Slavery Clause continued to incentivize minor criminal convictions and drive the over-incarceration of Black Americans throughout the Jim Crow era and forced labor on infamous prison plantations like Parchman in Mississippi and Angola in Louisiana. The corruption of our criminal justice system with embedded discrimination fueling mass incarceration has continued through elements of the War on Drugs, the proliferation of the three-strike laws, severe plea deals, and harsh mandatory minimum policies—with continued devastating effects on communities of color.
Today’s mass incarceration 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. America currently contains 1,833 state and 110 federal prisons, in addition to 1,772 juvenile facilities, 3,134 jails, and 218 immigration detention facilities. There are 80 Tribal jails.
“It’s shocking to think that we are still working to abolish slavery more than 155 years after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. But we cannot standby – that any exception still exists to allow for slavery is a stain on our Constitution and our nation. We are proud today to be standing with Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative Nikema Williams as they introduce the Abolition Amendment to end slavery, once and for all. Together with the End The Exception coalition, made up of more than 50 national organizations, we say no slavery, no exceptions,” said Bianca Tylek, Executive Director, Worth Rises, and Federal Campaign Lead, Abolish Slavery National Network.
“The Abolition Amendment is a pivotal step in our journey to true justice. By challenging these six words in the 13th Amendment, we can take a step back to examine this system and begin to propose even more transformative solutions as alternatives to incarceration. We are proud to be a part of the End The Exception coalition, and are thankful that Sen. Merkley and Rep. Williams are bringing this into Congress,”said Tehra Coles, Policy Counsel, Civil Rights Corps.
“The U.S. government has voiced a clear commitment to ending forced labor in all of its forms. Yet our own system of prison labor often contradicts our values – and our own laws against labor trafficking. We are grateful to Senator Merkley and Representative Williams for taking this step toward ending forced labor and labor trafficking in the U.S. prison system,” said Catherine Chen, CEO, Polaris.
“This effort to pass and ratify the Abolition Amendment joins a proud, centuries-long struggle to bend the arc of America’s Constitution further toward progress,” said Elizabeth Wydra, President, Constitutional Accountability Center. “The work started by Reconstruction is not finished. And by deciding we cannot allow any exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude to persist in the Constitution, we stand on the shoulders of giants whose legacies call upon us today to make our union ever more perfect, more equal, more inclusive, and more free.”
“It’s time to end slavery in the United States once and for all. We are grateful for Senator Merkley and Representative Williams’ leadership on this issue, and support their efforts to remove the punishment clause from the U.S. Constitution,” said Amy McGann, Program Director, Human Trafficking Search.
“This change is long overdue. The punishment clause in the 13th amendment is a legacy of slavery that has allowed people incarcerated, disproportionately Black and brown, to be exploited for decades. It is long past time that Congress excise this language from the US Constitution which should begin to put an end to the abusive practices derived from it,” said Laura Pitter, Deputy Director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch.
The Abolition Amendment is supported by Abolish Slavery National Network, Abolish Private Prisons, Action Center on Race and the Economy, Alliance of Families for Justice, American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Black and Pink, Brennan Center for Justice, The Bronx Defenders, California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, California Lawyers for the Arts, Civil Rights Corps, College and Community Fellowship, Common Justice, Color of Change, Constitutional Accountability Center, CURE National, Democracy for America, #DetentionKills, Dolores Street Community Services, Dream Corps Justice, Ensuring Parole for Incarcerated Citizens, Equal Justice Initiative, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Forward Justice, Freedom United, FWD.us, Human Rights Watch, Human Trafficking Search, Immigrant Defense Advocates, Impact Justice, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Indivisible, Just Leadership USA, Justice Round Table, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, MarchON, National Religious Coalition Against Torture, One Fair Wage, Oregonians Against Slavery and Involuntary Servitude, Polaris, Presente, Prison Policy Initiative, Project South, SawariMedia, Sentencing Project, Seventh Generation Interfaith Coalition for Responsible Investment, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Southern Anti-Racism Network, Southern Poverty Law Center, The Taifa Group, Towards Justice, Transgender Law Center, Urban Justice Center, Vera Institute of Justice, Verité, Vital Voices Global Partnership, Working Families Party, Worth Rises, Young Women’s Freedom Center, and Zealous.
Merkley and Williams were joined in the introduction by U.S. Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and U.S. Representatives Cori Bush (MO-01), Karen Bass (CA-37), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, Jr. (GA-04), Danny K. Davis (IL-07), Jared Huffman (CA-02), Alma S. Adams, Ph.D. (NC-12), André Carson (IN-07), Katherine Clark (MA-05), Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05), Bill Foster (IL-11), Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12), Al Green (TX-09), Barbara Lee (CA-13), and Jahana Hayes (CT-05).