Utah Constitutional Amendment C: Remove Slavery as Punishment for Crime from Constitution
Currently, the Utah 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 C would change the state constitution, striking out words as follows: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted shall exist within this State.” Meaning courts may not sentence criminals to labor nor prisons require labor from those serving their sentences.
The legislative analyst does not anticipate any significant fiscal impact from Amendment C.
Proponents’ Arguments For:
Proponents argue that Utah needs to eliminate the exception to the end of slavery that still lives in its state constitution. Supporters say that allowing forced labor in prisons is contrary to the values of Utah as a state—prison work should be voluntary and simply encouraged.
Opponents’ Arguments Against:
There is no official opposition to this amendment.
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 C 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.
Some argue that overall prison work programs help make prisons more of a rehabilitative experience, while others say the prison work system is rife with abuse. So, some might expect Utah to see improvements in its prisons from ending forced labor while others might predict more unemployed ex-offenders and recidivism if Amendment C passes. There is a sound argument that the strict language of the Utah 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.