The 13th Amendment’s exception clause permitting slavery as punishment for crime has fueled systemic racism in criminal justice for over 150 years—it is far past time to right this historic wrong

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Washington, D.C. – As Juneteenth approaches, Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, New Jersey’s U.S. Senator Cory Booker, and U.S. Representative Nikema Williams (D-GA-05) teamed up to introduce the Abolition Amendment, a bicameral resolution which would strike the ‘Slavery Clause’ of the 13th Amendment, a constitutional loophole which allows slavery “as a punishment for crime” in the United States.

“This country was founded on the principles of equality and justice—principles that have never been compatible with the horrific realities of slavery and white supremacy,” said Senator Merkley. “Nearly 160 years after the 13th Amendment was ratified, the evil remnants of slavery persist in the U.S., embedded in the heart of our Constitution. To live up to our nation’s promise of justice for all, we must take a long overdue step towards those principles by removing the loophole in our ban on slavery. No slavery, no exceptions.”

“In 2023, we still have legal slavery in the United States because Congress left this institution in place for “punishment for a crime” when it passed the Thirteenth Amendment. This has allowed our government to exploit individuals who are incarcerated and to profit from their forced labor – perpetuating the oppression of Black Americans, mass incarceration, and systemic racism,” said Senator Booker. “This loophole is at odds with our nation’s foundational principles of liberty, justice, and equality for all our people. It is time we pass the Abolition Amendment and finally end the morally reprehensible practice of slavery in this country. We must ensure that all people are treated with fairness and dignity to truly live up to our nation’s promise.”

“Slavery was wrong from day one, and we should have abolished it when the 13th Amendment was ratified,” said Congresswoman Nikema Williams. “I will keep pushing–no matter how long it takes– for Congress to close the Slavery Loophole in the Constitution, finally ending slavery in America once and for all. People in states across the country are making their voices heard by voting to abolish slavery. We’ve waited long enough. The time to pass the Abolition Amendment is now.”

Immediately following the 1865 ratification of the 13th Amendment—including the Slavery Clause—Southern jurisdictions arrested Black Americans in large numbers for minor crimes, like loitering or vagrancy, codified in ‘Black Codes.’ The Slavery 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 the prisoners had previously been enslaved. The practice grew in prevalence and scope to the point that, for example, by 1898, 73 percent of Alabama’s state revenue came from renting out the forced labor of Black Americans. Throughout the Jim Crow era, the Slavery Clause continued to incentivize minor crime convictions and drove the over-incarceration of Black Americans on infamous prison plantations like Parchman in Mississippi and Angola in Louisiana.

The Abolition Amendment would finally finish the job started by the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, and 13th Amendment by correcting this historic constitutional loophole and sending a clear message: a ban on slavery cannot come with exceptions.

“Slavery is wrong, under any and every circumstance, for all people, and our Constitution should reflect that,” said Bianca Tylek, Executive Director of Worth Rises. “Slavery is a system that relies on the denial of others’ humanity, which we all agree is reprehensible. Incarcerated people deserve the same protection of their basic human rights, including the right to be protected from slavery, as all people. It’s past time that we put an end to this exception and abolish slavery for all. We applaud Senators Merkley and Booker and Congresswoman Williams for introducing this joint resolution. This is a moral issue, and should not be a matter of party politics. It’s time for Congress to act.”

“Slavery is hidden behind prison walls, in a system rife with racial prejudice, abuse, and inadequate oversight — out of sight and mind as long as we may pretend people inside prison are not people. They are,” said Celina Chapin, Associate Director of Advocacy at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. “Where slavery exists, community health, rehabilitation, justice, and true public safety cannot. ARC is honored to stand alongside partners across the country in supporting the re-introduction of the Abolition Amendment.”

“Having the Abolition Amendment re-introduced gets us one step closer to rectifying a deep wrong that we have allowed to fester in our country – the loophole that has permitted the public and private sectors to perpetuate slavery and involuntary servitude for millions of people in our U.S. prison system,” said Jorge A. Renaud, LatinoJustice PRLDEF National Criminal Justice Director and Director of the Southwest Region. “As someone who spent decades in prison contributing hard labor without receiving adequate compensation or dignity, I know the deep scars and harm to our communities inflicted by a system that removes choice and people’s self-worth. We must finish the work started more than a century ago to align our country’s law with its best principles and end all forms of slavery once and for all, for all of us.”

”We are grateful to Congressmember Williams and Senators Merkley and Booker for re-introducing this amendment, which would have life-changing consequences for more than a million people behind bars today,” said Sean Kyler, Operations Manager, Advocacy & Partnerships, at Vera Institute of Justice. “Congress began ending slavery in 1865; today, it must finish the job.”

Bill text can be found here.

Bill summary can be found here.