The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” This so-called Punishment Clause has been the object of tireless campaigning across the country in recent years.
This week, the movement gained momentum in California as a new bill that would ban involuntary servitude in all cases passed the state Assembly.
Involuntary servitude in Californian prisons
The constitutional exception for involuntary servitude, which is replicated in many state constitutions, enabled states to profit from the unpaid labor of their prison populations for decades.
Although the system of convict leasing no longer exists, people who are incarcerated in California are required to work or take part in educational or rehabilitative programs.
Those who work earn between 8 and 37 cents per hour, or between $20 and $56 per month, according to a legislative analysis of the bill. These wages are drastically lower than the state’s minimum wage of $15 per hour for companies with at least 26 employees.
Having received the approval of the California Assembly on March 21, the bill will now go to the state Senate. If it clears the Legislature before July, the public will have a chance to vote on it this November.
It is currently unclear what would happen if the bill becomes law. One analysis suggests it could lead to a lawsuit which in turn could result in the state having to pay incarcerated workers minimum wage.
Assemblyman Ash Kalra said the law would make prison work voluntary, but would not affect wages. “You remove the ability to force anyone that is incarcerated to do work they choose not to do,” Kalra said.
Kalra said he hopes the amendment will be put on the ballot this November for voters to decide. He said he did not think an expensive statewide campaign would be needed to persuade voters to support it.
“I think it polls pretty strongly when folks are asked whether we should get rid of the exemptions to involuntary servitude and slavery,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll build a coalition that will have the resources to ensure that this gets passed.”
Join the movement to abolish the Punishment Clause
Together with partners, the Freedom United community is demanding all states and the federal government to explicitly outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime in the U.S. and state constitutions. Join us in calling for an end to the Punishment Clause in the United States!