Slavery as punishment was on the ballot in five states; it was prohibited in four of them

Four of five states in the U.S. where slavery and involuntary servitude are still acceptable as punishment for crimes voted Tuesday to end that practice.

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One state, Louisiana, did not, The Associated Press reported.

Ballot initiatives to remove language from state constitutions that allowed using convicted felons for free labor passed in Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont.

A similar measure was voted down in Louisiana, where nearly two-thirds of voters rejected the measure after the initial sponsor of the referendum condemned it and called on voters to defeat it.

Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, told The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge that he had wanted the proposal to clarify language in the state constitution that bans slavery and limits “involuntary servitude” to lawful punishment meted out to prisoners.

However, Jordan said the measure’s wording had changed so much in the legislative process that it could be interpreted to say it was allowing what it had aimed to prohibit.

Max Parthas, campaign coordinator for the Abolish Slavery National Network, told the AP that Tuesday’s vote on anti-slavery measures were historic.

“I believed that the people would choose freedom over slavery, if we gave them the opportunity, by taking the slavery question away from the legislators and putting it into the hands of the people. And they proved us right,” he said.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery in the wake of the Civil War. The amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Twenty state constitutions allowed forced labor or slavery as punishment for crimes prior to Tuesday’s vote.

“The (state constitutional) amendment is more than symbolic,” said Rev. Mark Hughes of Burlington, Vermont, executive director of Abolish Slavery Vermont and Justice for All Vermont. The organizations seek to end systemic racism in the state.

“Vermont has permitted slavery longer than any other state — for 245 years. What that means is no constitution allowed slavery in any state before Vermont,” he told the the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In 2018, Colorado became the first state since Rhode Island in 1842 to ban slavery and involuntary servitude.

Able-bodied inmates in Colorado are expected to work at certain jobs in the prison, such as in the kitchen or laundry.

The state is being sued over the practice, and Pew reports that in court papers, the state said the lawsuit should be dismissed because Colorado does not force those who are incarcerated to work, but rather penalizes them for not doing so.

If a convicted felon in Colorado refuses to work, he or she could forfeit earned time off from their sentences, be forced to spend up to 21 hours a day in their cell, or lose time for phone calls, visitors, or meals.