A proposal to amend Louisiana's Constitution to prohibit the use of involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime was rejected Tuesday by a House committee.
Rep. Edmond Jordan, a Brusly Democrat who sponsored House Bill 196, argued that involuntary servitude is tantamount to slavery, and pitched the measure as an opportunity to correct racist language in the state’s charter.
“I think when it was done, it was done with ill intent, and I think that needs to be corrected,” Jordan said. “In my opinion, removing this would put the constitution in its proper posture.”
Louisiana’s Constitution explicitly prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, “except in the latter case as punishment for crime.” The proposal, if approved, would have asked voters whether they wanted to do away with that exception.
The measure failed to advance on a 9-5 vote in the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure, with Republicans lining up against the proposal.
It's unclear what the immediate impact would have been of removing the so-called "slavery exception clause" from the state Constitution, especially considering that the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution includes a near-identical exception.
Rep. Larry Frieman, a Republican from Abita Springs, who voted against the bill, said given that overlap in language, he didn't see an "obvious purpose" for the measure.
Jordan said the measure, in some ways, was a symbolic gesture, but said that doesn't discount its importance, adding that the exception stems from the state's troubled history with slavery, segregation and convict leasing.
"If symbols didn't mean anything, people wouldn't try so hard to preserve them," Jordan said in an interview following the hearing. "If we can't get past simple things like this, then how as a body are we going to address more complicated issues."
Rep. Mike Johnson, a Pineville Republican, who voted against the measure, said he wished Jordan would instead focus legislation on correcting tangible wrongs in the state's prison system, like the exorbitant fees prisoners and their families pay to make phone calls.
“This is set up in such a way, I worry, if you were to disagree and vote against this bill it might appear to some that a vote no would be a vote yes for slavery,” Johnson said. “This is being billed as an antislavery bill. Well, everybody up here, I hope, is anti slavery.”
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Shreveport Republican, wondered whether the amendment could open Louisiana up to legal challenges attempting to overturn felony convictions that include sentences of hard labor.
“This has nothing to do with slavery," Seabaugh said. “I think this might be one of the most dangerous bills we’ll see this session."
Louisiana's prisoners do all sorts of work, often for only a few cents an hour, ranging from agricultural labor at Angola — itself a former slave plantation — to janitorial work at the State Capitol and Governor's Mansion.
Curtis Ray Davis II, executive director of the organization Decarcerate Louisiana, said he spent "25 years, nine months and 11 days as a slave" at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Davis was convicted of second degree murder in 1990 before he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and was released.
For several years while incarcerated, Davis worked at a quail barn, making just two cents an hour, and after two decades, received just $1,200 upon release.
“The reasons that the exception is there is to make sure African-Americans, Black people or Negros, as they were called at that time, remain subjugated in ad infinitum,” Davis said.
In the last two years, Colorado, Utah and Nebraska removed similar clauses from their books. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers in Congress have proposed rewriting the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment’s ban on slavery to expressly prohibit involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime.
Voting against HB196: Reps. Beryl Amedee; Michael Echols; Julie Emerson; Larry Frieman; Mike Johnson; Nicholas Muscarello Jr.; Richard Nelson; Thomas Pressly; Alan Seabaugh.
Voting for HB196: Reps. Wilford Carter, Sr.; Patrick Jefferson; Sam Jenkins, Jr.; Mandie Landry; Ed Larvadain.