Nebraska Amendment 1: Remove Slavery as Punishment for Crime from Constitution
Currently, the Nebraska state constitution allows courts to punish criminals with “involuntary servitude,” which has meant that prisoners can be required to work while serving their sentences.
Amendment 1 would change the state constitution, striking out words as follows: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this state, otherwise than for punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Meaning courts may not sentence criminals to labor nor prisons require labor from those serving their sentences.
There is no official estimate of Amendment 1’s fiscal impact. However, prison labor does create revenues for the Nebraska prison system which would be lost if this amendment passes. Colorado estimated that every prisoner who works saves the state $5,000 per year.
Proponents’ Arguments For:
Proponents argue that Nebraskans should end the injustice of slavery in their state once and for all and no longer allow slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. Supporters say allowing involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime is a strange exception to the abhorrence of slavery and it is abused by state prison officials to lease out convicts for labor. Slavery is immoral and removing any use of it from the state constitution shows slavery is not a Nebraska value, proponents of the amendment argue.
Opponents’ Arguments Against:
There is no official opposition to Amendment 1.
The important symbolism of removing any use of slavery from the state constitution is obvious. In this case, convicted criminals lose many of their rights and may be required to work—involuntary servitude if they don’t want to work—but they don’t become property. Arguably the question Amendment 1 raises is whether prison managers forcing prisoners to work is just or not.
Work programs in prisons cover broad ranges duties, from requiring inmates to do cleaning and repairs to selecting volunteers for cooking or laundry or similar duties, to working in real industries, sometimes with programs run by private companies. There are many pros and cons to these practices. A large-scale study by the National Institute of Justice found that inmates who work while in prison are significantly more likely to find work after they are released and are less likely to be rearrested or convicted for committing more crimes. This was voluntary work, however, not forced labor.
So, some might expect Nebraska to see improvements in its prisons from ending forced labor while others might predict more unemployed ex-offenders and recidivism if Amendment 1 passes. There is a sound argument that the strict language of the Nebraska Constitution, which is similar to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, should be interpreted as meaning that judges can sentence convicted criminals to labor (involuntary servitude), but that prison managers cannot take it upon themselves to require prisoners to work without the judge so sentencing them.
One concern about this amendment that was raised when a similar change was made to Colorado’s state constitution was that it would also ban judges from ordering community service. But courts have ruled that community service requirements are not involuntary servitude and so would likely uphold continued use of community service as a punishment even if this amendment passes.