A joint resolution is set to be introduced by the national lawmakers on Wednesday aimed at amending the 13th Amendment's ban on chattel enslavement to explicitly prohibit involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime.
Even 155 years after the abolition of slavery, the original amendment allowed exploitation of labour by convicted felons.
The resolution, initiated and supported by members of the Democratic party in the House and Senate, would amend the 13th Amendment, which “continued the process of a white power class gravely mistreating Black Americans, creating generations of poverty, the breakup of families and this wave of mass incarceration that we still wrestle with today,” Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon told The Associated Press ahead of the resolution’s introduction.
A House version is led by outgoing Republican William Lacy Clay, of St. Louis, who said the amendment “seeks to finish the job that President (Abraham) Lincoln started.”
It would “eliminate the dehumanizing and discriminatory forced labour of prisoners for profit that has been used to drive the over-incarceration of African Americans since the end of the Civil War,” Clay added.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, the resolution has Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland signed on as co-sponsors. “This change to the 13th Amendment will finally, fully rid our nation of a form of legalised slavery,” Van Hollen said in an emailed statement to AP.
Constitutional amendments of such stature are rare and require approval by two-thirds of the House and Senate, as well as approval by three-fourths of the state legislatures.
Should the proposal fail to move out of committee in the remaining weeks of the current Congress, Merkley said he hoped to revive it next year.
The effort has been welcomed and propagated by human rights and social justice organizations, including The Sentencing Project, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Color of Change.
“It is long past time that Congress excise this language from the U.S. Constitution which should begin to put an end to the abusive practices derived from it,” said Laura Pitter, deputy director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, which also endorsed the amendment.
The proposed amendment comes almost a month after voters in Nebraska and Utah approved initiatives amending their state constitutions to remove language that allows slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishments.
In 2018, Colorado was among the first U.S. states to remove such language by ballot measure.