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Why a constitutional amendment banning slavery is on November’s ballot in Louisiana

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Paul Braun
/
WRKF

Louisiana voters are used to seeing a slew of proposed constitutional amendments on their ballots each fall. This year, they’ll decide whether or not the state rewrites the portion of the constitution that bans slavery and limits involuntary servitude. But the effort faces an unlikely opponent – the same lawmaker who got that question put on the ballot in the first place.


En Español: Por qué en las elecciones de noviembre aparece una enmienda constitucional que prohíbe la esclavitud


Capitol Access reporter Paul Braun talked through the controversy with WRKF host Karen Henderson.

Karen Henderson: Start off by telling us what state law currently says about slavery and involuntary servitude and what lawmakers were originally trying to change about that.

Paul Braun: This all goes back to Article One, Section Three of the state's constitution which says quote, slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited. And here's the tricky part, except in the latter case as punishment for crime. State Representative Edmund Jordan said that practically — historically speaking — there's no difference between those two terms — 'slavery' and 'involuntary servitude' — and that both of those practices ought to be explicitly banned in our state's foundational document.

“We can use different vernacular, but we all know what they mean,” Jordan said. “It’s just a sanitized version of it, and involuntary servitude, in this case, is just a sanitized version of slavery.”

The original ballot language Jordan proposed was pretty straightforward. It would have read: “Do you support an amendment to prohibit the use of involuntary servitude as the punishment for a crime?”

But that wording drew immediate opposition from some Republican state lawmakers.

KH: What were some of their concerns?

PB: They said that the change as Jordan proposed it could upend the state's criminal justice system. For many crimes in Louisiana, an individual’s time is served “at hard labor.” Inmate labor is ubiquitous in the Louisiana criminal justice system, whether you're serving your time at one of the eight state-run prisons, or the dozens of local jails that the state sends prisoners to.

Despite Jordan’s claims to the contrary, Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport) suggested that Jordan wanted to put an end to that.

“If you wanted to just say slavery is prohibited, you could amend the sentence to simply say slavery is prohibited period,” Seabaugh said. “What I think you're trying to do is affect criminal sentencing statutes that say with or without hard labor, and you're trying to affect the penal institutions' ability to require convicted persons to perform labor.”

Seabaugh and many of his GOP colleagues said removing language that permits involuntary servitude in correctional facilities could have a cascading effect in the criminal justice system — possibly allowing attorneys to challenge any criminal sentence that has served at hard labor.

Now, that wouldn't necessarily have been the case. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution includes similar language that allows for forced inmate labor and inmate labor has continued in states that have recently adopted language in their state constitutions banning slavery and involuntary servitude. Jordan himself has acknowledged that the change he proposed would be a largely symbolic gesture. But still, he said sometimes symbolism really matters.

Seabaugh and his colleagues amended the language of the ballot measure to ask voters if they wanted to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude except for the “otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.” Those changes were adopted and that's how the would-be amendment cleared the legislature earlier this year.

KH: So where does this leave us now?

PB: Well, Jordan said the way that his proposal was tweaked would actually broaden the state's authority to use involuntary servitude — not limit it. He opposes the amendment now and he's urging people to vote “no” when they head to the polls this fall. If it does pass, Jordan has vowed to bring another proposed amendment next year to change the language back.

Good government groups say that this whole situation is a bit of a mess. The Council for a Better Louisiana in their annual guide to the amendments said that lawmakers tried to thread the needle and make it clear that slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited in Louisiana, but inmate labor is okay. Instead of erasing those vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow from the state's constitution and providing some clarity on how criminal sentences are carried out in Louisiana, they said proposal just muddies the waters and presents voters with a choice that wouldn't actually change anything.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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