NEW YORK (AP) — Democrats in the House and Senate are to introduce a joint resolution Wednesday aimed at amending the 13th Amendment’s ban on chattel enslavement.
The move would expressly prohibit the use of involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime. The original amendment has permitted exploitation of labor by convicted felons for over 155 years since the abolition of slavery.
Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon tells The Associated Press that the 13th Amendment is in part responsible for the historic mistreatment of Black Americans through the nation's penal systems.
“America was founded on beautiful principles of equality and justice and horrific realities of slavery and white supremacy, and if we are ever going to fully deliver on the principles we have to directly confront the realities,” said Senator Merkley. “The exception to the 13th Amendment’s ban on slavery corrupted criminal justice into a tool of racist control of Black Americans and other people of color, and we see that legacy every day in police encounters, courtrooms, and prisons throughout our country. Slavery is incompatible with justice. No slavery, no exceptions.”
Constitutional amendments are rare, and require approval by two-thirds of the House and Senate, as well as ratification by three-quarters of state legislatures.
“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 the abusive practices derived from it,” said Laura Pitter, Deputy Director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch.