Democratic lawmakers are reviving calls to end a loophole in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that allowed another form of slavery — forced labor for convicted felons — to thrive.
In a statement on Friday, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley said that he has teamed up with Congresswoman Nikema Williams of Georgia to introduce the Abolition Amendment, which would strike that exception from the 13th Amendment once and for all.
“This country was founded on the beautiful principles of equality and justice — principles that have never been compatible with the horrific realities of slavery and white supremacy,” said Merkley. “The loophole in our constitution’s ban on slavery not only allowed slavery to continue, but launched an era of discrimination and mass incarceration that continues to this day. To live up to our nation’s promise of justice for all, we must eliminate the Slavery Clause from our constitution.”
Merkley praised the addition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday this week, which will now commemorate the material end of chattel slavery in the U.S. after Union troops reached the last corner of the former Confederacy in 1865. However, the lawmaker insisted that the 13th Amendment, as it is now, continues to allow forms of slavery in the country.
The two lawmakers referenced the clause’s frequent use during and after Reconstruction as a vehicle for arresting Black Americans in droves for minor crimes, imprisoning them, then impressing them into service to work in the same kind of field labor that they endured during slavery’s height.
“The Abolition Amendment is one step closer to achieving true justice and equality for all. States are amending their constitutions to finally abolish slavery in all forms, and Congress will lead the way and finally abolish involuntary servitude in America,” said Williams. “We are in a period of reckoning with our country’s history, and a lot of that history is marked with racism and systems of oppression. Eliminating the loophole in the 13th Amendment that allows for slavery is another opportunity to do that.”
Merkley’s office said that the U.S. is currently home to 2.3 million prisoners, or 20 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. As a result of the 13th Amendment’s wording, prisoners can be forced to work under threat of punishment, and can be made to work without compensation. Though some pay is common in many states, inmates are often paid less than a dollar per hour.