Colorado became the first state completely abolish slavery in all forms in 2018. The exception for criminal punishment still exists in many state constitutions, including Nevada’s.
The United States never fully abolished slavery.
The 13th Amendment, which was ratified in 1865 to end the centuries-long practice within the country, carved out an exemption to when used as a punishment for a crime.
Las Vegas Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts said 24 states, including Nevada, enshrined similar language in their state constitutions.
“It has remained in the foundation document of our state government for more than 155 years,” he said.
Assembly Joint Resolution 10, which was heard Tuesday, would remove slavery and involuntary servitude as a criminal punishment from the state’s constitution.
The resolution is sponsored by members of the Nevada Black Legislative Caucus.
Watts said there has been a growing movement for states to address the language.
“In 2018, Colorado became the first state in the country to change its constitution and completely ban slavery and involuntary servitude,” he added. “In 2020, Utah and Nebraska voters overwhelmingly passed similar measures to do the same. I believe it’s time for Nevada to close this chapter and open a new page where the foundation of our government reflects our shared values for freedom.”
The resolution would have to be passed again by lawmakers in 2023 before going on the ballot in 2024 where voters would ultimately decide.
“The words in our constitution hold extraordinary weight to Black Nevadans and Black Americans,” Watts said. “They certainly matter to me as the great, great grandson of Coleman Watts, who was born enslaved in the United States of America.”
Following the 13th Amendment and the emancipation of enslaved people, states created new ways to recapture lost labor.
“New petty offenses were created and enforced that specifically targeted Black citizens often referred to as the ‘black codes,’” Watts said. “These included whistling and showing signs of disrespect to others. When penalties came with fees and the fees weren’t able to be paid, hard labor was required instead.”
Pointing to books like “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and the documentary “13th” by Ava DeVurney, which both explore the history of mass incarceration, Watts said the exemption in the 13th amendment led to the modern carceral system, which imprisons Black and brown people at higher rates.
“To this day, higher rates of policing, arrests, prosecution and incarceration for communities of color, subminimum wages for prison labor and the collateral consequences of covictions that increase the likelihood of recidivism are considered to be a direct legacy of these creative efforts to maintain the chattel slavery economy following the end of the Civil War,” he said.
Elected officials including Attorney General Aaron Ford and North Las Vegas City Councilwoman Pamela Goynes-Brown were among those testifying in support.
“This loophole kept the system of unpaid labor alive and disproportionately affected the Black community,” Goynes-Brown said
The resolution received no opposition.
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