BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A bid to abolish involuntary servitude as criminal punishment in Louisiana failed in its first legislative hearing Tuesday, with Republican lawmakers rejecting the proposal despite arguments the constitutional language allows a form of slavery in prisons.
The House civil law committee voted to stall the proposed constitutional change by Rep. Edmond Jordan and keep it from reaching the full House for debate. Nine Republicans voted against the measure, while five Democrats supported it.
Jordan, a Baton Rouge Democrat, said the language in Louisiana’s constitution stems from the state’s history of slavery, segregation and convict leasing. He described his proposal as “righting a wrong and correcting history.”
“It is tantamount to slavery when we talk about involuntary servitude,” he said.
But Republicans on the committee disagreed, saying slavery already is outlawed in Louisiana’s constitution. They suggested that Jordan’s proposal could lead to widespread efforts to overturn felony convictions that involve sentences to hard labor, which several GOP lawmakers suggested were appropriate punishments for crime.
“I think this might be one of the most dangerous bills we’ve seen this session,” said Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Shreveport Republican. “I’m afraid this might open the door to a legal challenge of every felony conviction in the state of Louisiana, and that’s not a can of worms I want to open.”
Jordan disagreed. He said while anything is open to litigation, he did not expect a far-ranging overturning of the sentences of thousands of people serving prison time for felonies. He said many other states don’t have the language in Louisiana’s constitution, “and they’re locking people up just fine.”
Louisiana’s Constitution states that “slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for crime.” Jordan sought to strike out the language removing the exception.
Supporters of Jordan’s constitutional amendment said that language is used to force prisoners to do hard labor — everything from harvesting crops and construction work to janitorial services at the Louisiana Capitol and other state buildings — for pennies an hour in pay, which they called inhumane and immoral.
Curtis Davis, executive director of the organization Decarcerate Louisiana, said he spent more than 25 years “as a slave” at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, picking cotton, okra and other crops. He said the language allowing involuntary servitude as punishment is aimed at making sure Black people remain marginalized and subjugated.
“It is a slavery exception clause,” said Maria Harmon, also with Decarcerate Louisiana.
Republicans resisted that argument. Committee Chairman Greg Miller, a Republican from Norco, said the constitution already prohibits slavery and does not allow it as punishment for crime.
“We’re not voting on whether or not to allow slavery in the wording of our constitution,” Miller said.
Backers of Jordan’s legislation suggested that’s a distinction without a difference because of the allowance of involuntary servitude.
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.
In Louisiana, Jordan’s proposal always faced high hurdles to passage. It would have needed two-thirds House and Senate backing, along with support from voters in a statewide election.
Voting to send the bill to the full House for debate were Democratic Reps. Wilford Carter of Lake Charles, Patrick Jefferson of Homer, Sam Jenkins of Shreveport, Mandie Landry of New Orleans and Ed Larvadain of Alexandria.
Voting to kill the bill were Republican Reps. Beryl Amedee of Houma, Mike Echols of Monroe, Julie Emerson of Carencro, Larry Frieman of Abita Springs, Mike Johnson of Pineville, Nicholas Muscarello of Hammond, Richard Nelson of Mandeville, Thomas Pressly of Shreveport and Seabaugh.
The bill is filed as House Bill 196.
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