In less than 60 days, voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont will decide whether to abolish slavery. But it’s not exactly what you may think.
The initiative on the ballot is a part of a larger criminal justice reform movement aimed at prison labor. In an attempt address the “loophole” in the 13th Amendment—which ended slavery and involuntary servitude when it was ratified in 1865—advocates push to officially abolish slavery and involuntary servitude as well as reshape the prison labor system.
Longtime advocate and director, Ava DuVernay explained the “loophole” in her groundbreaking documentary 13th. “Everybody knows the 13th Amendment of the Constitution says there shall be no slavery in the United States,” says DuVernay. “Most people don’t know that that is a lie. Right after it says there shall be no slavery, there’s a little clause, a little loophole, that says ‘except’ – the exception is, ‘except’ if we think you’re a criminal.”
That same “exception clause” loophole led to much of the repressive 19th-century laws in the South during the Reconstruction era known as Black Codes. Black Codes allowed authorities to incarcerate Black people for petty crimes, such as vagrancy—which was easy to do because the newly freed Black people were already disenfranchised at they weren’t working and didn’t own property, thus pushed into vagrancy. The system would then force them to work in a sort of legal slavery. This would then allow the system to effortlessly usher in the Jim Crow era.
Currently, 20 states have adopted similar exceptions their constitutions. However, most referendums are asking voters to declare no form of slavery or involuntary servitude be permitted.
Voters in Colorado, Nebraska and Utah struck down slavery and involuntary servitude through similar ballot initiatives back in 2018.
According to PEW, states like Alabama go as far as seeking to remove “all racist language” from the state constitution. In Oregon, the amendment would add provisions allowing the state courts or parole agency to order alternatives to incarceration for a convicted individual.
Meanwhile, legislation in has been introduced in California, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, and Texas to put similar ballot questions before voters in upcoming elections.