In the recent midterm elections, Colorado’s vote to amend the state’s constitution was easily overlooked because of the extensive focus on the races for congress. But in addition to sending an extra Democratic representative to the House, Colorado voters also just passed a referendum to outlaw slavery in all circumstances.
Before November 6th, Colorado’s state constitution stated that: “shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Referendum A, approved by about 65% of voters, changed that to read simply that “shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude.” Period, with no exceptions. No slavery ever for anyone, including convicts. You can read coverage at NPR, Time, and Governing.org.
Supporters of the amendment explain that it is mostly symbolic. Since the amendment is not intended to create any immediate or concrete change in prison conditions, it is more about enshrining the principle that slavery is an absolute wrong, not acceptable in any circumstances. It’s similar to taking down a Confederate monument, a step towards healing wounds caused by slavery and racial discrimination of the past.
Then again, opponents of the amendment (and remember that 35% of voters were against) argued that it could be used by prisoners to challenge their conditions in prison labor programs. Colorado currently requires inmates to volunteer to perform prison labor, and pays prisoners for their work (far less than the minimum wage). But due to voluntary nature and compensation provided for prison work it’s unlikely a judge would find the current arrangement to be slavery and there is no immediate plan by the sponsors of the amendment to pursue that type of litigation in court.
But if inmates do use the new amendment to challenge their work conditions in court, that’s good. Prison inmates are so vulnerable to abuse they need every bit of legal protection they can muster.
The language removed from the Colorado state constitution is of course very similar to what is currently in the U.S. constitution, as well as the constitutions of various other states. We should take Colorado’s example and make this change all across the country.