Lawmakers on Juneteenth push for change to 13th Amendment

Lawmakers on Juneteenth push for change to 13th Amendment


By:  Elizabeth Crisp

Members of Congress and others, pointing to the Juneteenth holiday, are pushing for the expansion of the 13th Amendment to provide worker protections for people who are incarcerated and often forced into working for very little pay.

“I’m bold enough to think that I can change the Constitution, and I know that there’s a national, bipartisan, multiracial movement to get it done. Let’s #EndTheException in the 13th Amendment,” Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) wrote on Twitter on Monday.

Constitution’s 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States was ratified in 1865 following the Civil War. Juneteenth recognizes when the news reached Texas two years later and is celebrated on the third Saturday in June. It became a federal holiday last year, when President Biden signed the Congress-approved legislation after years of advocates pushing for recognition. Federal offices observed Juneteenth on Monday.

But many advocates have argued that the recognition doesn’t go far enough and that Congress should act to extend the protections that the 13th provides.

“Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, but that recognition cannot be a placeholder for action,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) wrote on Twitter. “We must recognize the lasting impact of slavery and that justice and freedom are still too often denied to Black Americans, and recommit to building a more just country.”

The 13th Amendment says: “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.”

Williams and Merkley, who also pushed for legislation last year during Juneteenth celebrations, are calling for a constitutional amendment to end the so-called punishment clause.

Advocates also have pointed to the low wages that prisoners are paid — particularly those forced to perform heavy-labor jobs — as a need to expand the 13th Amendment.

“We must recognize the lasting impact of slavery and that justice and freedom are still too often denied to Black Americans, and recommit to building a more just country that allows for slavery as punishment for a crime,” Merkley wrote. “This clausehas fueled re-enslavement and mass incarceration for generations, and must be removed.”

In a recent report produced with the Global Human Rights Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that the average minimum wage for prisoners is 52 cents an hour or less.

Prisoners are forced to take on jobs as cooks, janitors, groundskeepers, barbers and plumbers, among other odd jobs spread throughout government and inside their prisons.

The ACLU analysts estimated that incarcerated workers generated at least $2 billion in goods and $9 billion dollars in prison maintenance services a year, despite the meager wages paid to them.