By Margo Kirchner
Twenty Democratic representatives and five senators recently proposed an amendment to the Wisconsin constitution to ban slavery in all forms and circumstances.
The state constitution generally prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, but it includes an exception permitting slavery or involuntary servitude inside prisons: “There shall be neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude in this state, otherwise than for the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Senate Joint Resolution 95 and Assembly Joint Resolution 102 would strike the exception from the constitution. The table below shows the joint resolution sponsors.
A proposed constitutional amendment requires passage by two consecutive legislatures, then ratification of a ballot question by voters.
SJR 95 was referred to the Senate’s Committee on Licensing, Constitution and Federalism. AJR 102 was referred to the Assembly’s Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety.
Without Republican sponsors, and with the Legislature in a frenzy to wrap up its session by March, the chance of a hearing and passage this term is low. If the resolution does not pass this term, it could not go to voters until at least 2027.
But grassroots pressure could change that, especially as legislators’ actions now may be considered by voters in the fall. Passage this term and next term would mean a referendum in possibly 2025 or 2026.
Call your state legislators to let them know the importance of this bill. Legislators often give their own constituents’ calls and emails more weight than communications from others. Find your legislators HERE.
The following legislators are extra important right now, as they sit on the committees to which the bills are assigned. The committee chairs, especially, can control whether the proposed resolutions get to hearing. If your legislator is on this list, please consider calling them as soon as possible to let them know your position.
The exception has existed in the constitution since Wisconsin became a state. It tracks a provision in the Northwest Ordinance, which governed the territory before statehood.
Without such a constitutional amendment, Wisconsin lags behind other states—including some southern states—on a full slavery ban. Tennessee and Alabama amended their constitutions in 2022 to eliminate the slavery or involuntary servitude exception. Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and Vermont have all amended their constitutions since 2018. Rhode Island has banned all forms of slavery since the early 1800s. Efforts are underway to amend the constitutions of Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada, California, and other states to ban slavery without exception.
The U.S. Constitution contains a similar exception in the Thirteenth Amendment. Amending the U.S. Constitution is a lengthy process requiring passage by two-thirds of each house of Congress and ratification by 38 states.
On Juneteenth Day, it’s important to remember that slavery is still legal in Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Constitution, even 158 years after the end of the Civil War, permits slavery and involuntary servitude for those convicted of a crime. Any crime.
Wisconsin’s constitution states that “(t)here shall be neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude in this state, otherwise than for the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” (Emphasis added.)
The U.S. Constitution provides no relief, as the Thirteenth Amendment contains similar language prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude except for those convicted of crime.
Wisconsin is one of just nine states with constitutions that still expressly permit slavery as punishment for crime, and one of 17 states that permit involuntary servitude as punishment for crime.
The inclusion in the Wisconsin Constitution of slavery in any form or manner is offensive and abhorrent. The constitution should be amended to correct this significant flaw and to uphold the human dignity of all people.
There should be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this state. Period.
No slavery. No exceptions.
This language has been in the state constitution since it was adopted; it has never been amended. The provision tracks a provision in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which applied to Wisconsin when it was a territory.
For those who follow originalism as a method of constitutional interpretation, “slavery” should mean exactly what it did in 1848: the owning of people, especially Black people, as property. But under any interpretation theory, the word means forced labor for no pay.
Wisconsin, once a frontrunner regarding abolition, now lags behind in the law regarding such slavery provisions.
Kudos to Rhode Island, which in 1843 prohibited slavery in all forms.
A growing movement is working to eliminate this remnant of America’s slavery past. Since 2018, seven states have amended their constitutions to remove slavery and involuntary servitude provisions. Four of those states did so by voters just this past November. These states include not only those often considered liberal, like Oregon, Colorado, and Vermont, but also Nebraska, Utah, and the former slave states of Tennessee and Alabama.
Yes, Tennessee and Alabama are better on the slavery issue than Wisconsin.
Efforts to end the exception for slavery or involuntary servitude as punishment for crime are occurring in California, Louisiana, Nevada, and Ohio.
If those efforts succeed, Wisconsin will soon be one of just a handful of states with constitutions still permitting slavery or involuntary servitude in some form.
There shall be neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude in this state, otherwise than for the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Wis. Const. art. 1, § 2 (emphasis added).
In the mid-1800s, Milwaukee and Waukesha boasted abolitionist newspapers, and the Underground Railroad stopped in several Wisconsin counties. Angry citizens freed escaped slave Joshua Glover from jail and whisked him to the Underground Railroad and eventual safety in Canada.
Then, in two monumental opinions, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the federal Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional and defied the U.S. Supreme Court on the matter. The Wisconsin Supreme Court was the highest court in the nation to rule against slavery.
One concurring justice wrote that in a slave state a Black person “may be, indeed, a chattel; but in Wisconsin he is a MAN . . . the laws of Wisconsin regard him as a person here.”
Ending the exception in Wisconsin’s constitution will reject a system that demeaned Black people and treated them as property. Slavery in any form should be rejected as immoral and unjust. Our state supreme court thought so more than 150 years ago and time has solidified the belief that slavery in all forms must be rejected.
Ending the constitution’s slavery exception has real meaning for those convicted of crimes. It will confirm that they are, in no way, property of the state while under its control. They maintain their humanity and dignity.
Ending the exception will increase recognition of the valuable work those in the state’s “care” do as cooks, janitors, office assistants, laundry workers, printing-press workers, and in a myriad of other roles. It will increase recognition that prison labor is valuable and valued work.
Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) in 2017 introduced a bill to amend Wisconsin’s constitution to eliminate the punishment exception for slavery, but the bill failed to pass out of a Senate committee. When Taylor talked about proposing the bill, Politifact checked her statements and concluded that “Wisconsin does have the legal authority to require inmates to work for no pay, although in practice it does so only when inmates violate prison rules.”
Last week, three Democratic U.S. representatives introduced a resolution to amend the federal constitution to end the slavery exception in the Thirteenth Amendment.
It’s time Wisconsin legislators act to end permissible slavery in our state.
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