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Colorado Voters Approve Constitutional Amendment Abolishing Prison Slavery

by Matt Clarke 

The second time was the charm. On November 6, 2018, Colorado voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state’s constitution that abolished all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude, after rejecting a similar ballot measure in 2016. [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.48; Nov. 2017, p.40]. Previously, Article II, Section 26 of Colorado’s constitution prohibited slavery “except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

The anti-slavery Amendment A was approved by 65 percent of Colorado voters. A similar measure, Amendment T, had been narrowly defeated two years earlier – a difference attributed to the language used in the prior ballot measure. 

“I don’t think this was a pushback at all by individuals saying they wanted slavery in the Constitution,” said state Rep. Joseph Salazar, one of Amendment T’s sponsors, referring to its defeat in 2016. “I just think the language was too confusing.” 

Rep. Salazar’s position was supported by the fact that almost 300,000 of the 2016 voters failed to vote on Amendment T. Afterwards, supporters of the effort to abolish all slavery and involuntary servitude worked to clarify the language, resulting in Amendment A. 

“The hope is that this win opens up the door to a larger conversation about what abolition really looks like and can accomplish,” said Abolish Slavery Colorado’s co-chair Jumokie Emery. “It’s clear to me, but regardless of how people feel about the criminal justice system, the ultimate outcome shouldn’t be slavery.” 

The ballot measure made Colorado the first state to remove language allowing slavery as a punishment for crime from its constitution. At least a dozen other states’ constitutions and the U.S. Constitution still contain clauses permitting slavery as a form of punishment. Similar abolition measures failed in Wisconsin in March 2018 and stalled in Tennessee. 

Amendment A enjoyed the unanimous support of Colorado state legislators and was sponsored by Democratic state Reps. Salazar, Jovan Melton and Angela Williams, as well as Republican Rep. Larry Crowder. 

“I hope this puts forth the message that our past doesn’t have to be our future, that by and large we as Americans are interested in fixing our mistakes,” Emery stated in a CNN interview prior to the vote. 

There was no organized opposition to the ballot measure, but Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubenstein penned an article for the Colorado Independent in which he criticized it as being unnecessary. He also complained the measure would effectively ban community-service punishments, resulting in the unintended consequence of sending more people to jail. While Rubenstein was correct that Colorado had already stopped forcing prisoners to work without compensation, his beliefs about community service were more speculative. 

“This won’t have a direct impact on prison reform or how inmates are treated,” said Abolish Slavery Colorado organizer Kamau Allen. “But it is definitely more impactful than removing something like a Confederate monument, because this will actually change the text of a living document.” 

Indeed, constitutional exceptions that allow prison slavery seem to be most prevalent in the states where chattel slavery once thrived. It is beyond time for those states to throw off this last vestige of their “peculiar institution” and follow Colorado’s lead in abolishing all forms of slavery, including prison slave labor. 



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