Why Colorado Had to Vote This Week to Abolish Slavery in All Forms

Previously, the state’s constitution made an exception for slavery as a punishment for convicted criminals

The Colorado State Capitol Building in Denver. Ken Lund/Flickr

Since 1877, Colorado has banned slavery and servitude—with one exception. “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude,” Article II, Section 26 of the state’s constitution read for nearly 150 years, “except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

On November 6, Colorado residents voted in favor of an amendment that will abolish slavery in every form, including the forced labor of convicted criminals, reports Bill Chappell of NPR. As of Wednesday afternoon, 65 percent of voters had approved the amendment, exceeding the 55 percent of votes required for an amendment to pass.

The language of Article II, Section 26 effectively mimics the wording of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1865. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but continued to allow slavery as punishment for a crime. That loophole still stands, as CBS News reports, and more than 15 states technically permit convicted criminals to be punished with slavery.

With the passing of the new amendment in Colorado, known as Amendment A, the state constitution now reads, “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude.”

Colorado was only granted statehood after the American Civil War, and as such was never a slave state, but as Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, executive director of the ACLU of Colorado, writes, Amendment A is “more than a symbolic measure.” In the wake of the Civil War, Woodliff-Stanley notes, some states exploited the 13th Amendment loophole to arrest formerly enslaved people and force them back into “involuntary servitude,” a system now known as “convict leasing.” Amendment A “closes the door on the possibility of future abuses,” Woodliff-Stanley writes.

A similar measure was offered in Colorado in 2016, but was rejected because its convoluted language confused voters. The language on the 2016 ballot measure read: “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution concerning the removal of the exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude when used as punishment for persons duly convicted of a crime?” This time around, the wording was changed to be clearer, reading: “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution that prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime and thereby prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude in all circumstances?”

Vox’s P.R. Lockhart reports the 2018 measure met with “very little public opposition, and no groups mounted an organized challenge to the amendment.” But there was some pushback. In October, Dan Rubinstein, a Republican district attorney representing Mesa County, told Alex Burness of the Colorado Independent that he would not support the measure unless it “specifically authorizes court-ordered community service.”

“With most low-level offenses carrying jail, fines and community service as the only sentencing options, I fear that [the passage of Amendment A] will result in more low-risk offenders filling our jails and would disproportionately incarcerate indigent offenders who lack the ability to pay fines,” he said.

Jumoke Emery of Abolish Slavery Colorado, which supported the amendment, argued that this was not a concern. “Time and time again, research has shown that folks who have the ability to work while incarcerated, who have the ability to do community service, that it reduces recidivism,” he told Burness. “We don’t want to impact those programs at all. We did our due diligence ahead of time, and we had legal assistance from the state legislature, from the ACLU, to make sure changing the wording [in the state constitution] wouldn’t impact those programs.”

In a disturbing incident on Monday, Emery found a pile of burning pamphlets supporting Amendment A on the front porch of his family’s home. He told CBS News that he believes the smouldering pamphlets were “a clear case of terrorism and intimidation” over his support for the measure, but that he was nevertheless heartened by the passing of the amendment.

“I hope that this puts forth the message that our past doesn't have to be our future,” he said, “[and] that by and large we as Americans are interested in fixing our mistakes and that there's hope for our future.”

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