SPRINGFIELD – Illinois House on Wednesday voted to approve a proposed U.S. constitutional amendment that would permanently eradicate what some consider to be the last trace of slavery in the United States – forced labor of people convicted of crimes and sent to prison were convicted.
Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, House Joint Resolution 7 calls for the proposed “Abolitionist Amendment” to remove the so-called “punishment clause” of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery after the Civil War.
The 13th amendment reads in part: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crimes for which the party has been duly convicted, may exist in the United States or in any place under its jurisdiction.”
These words, “except as a punishment for a crime,” have been used in the years since the Civil War to require prisoners, a disproportionate number of whom are colored, to do manual labor, typically for little or no compensation.
“Because you have to understand that African Americans have provided freelance workers in this country from the beginning and are even imprisoned, they are providing freelance workers,” Flowers said during the debate on the resolution. “But you forget that these men, who are doing free labor while in detention, have families who need their support. And if they work, they should be paid. “
In December, Congress Democrats passed a joint resolution that would add another amendment to the Constitution and effectively remove the penalty clause. It would read: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude can be used as a punishment for a crime.”
US Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Lead sponsor of the federal proposal, issued a statement that the 13th Amendment continues to serve as a means to benefit from involuntary labor.
“To this day, many federal states and the federal government stipulate that all incarcerated people with disabilities must work,” the statement said. “People in prison are not protected by health and safety laws that help keep other Americans safe in the workplace. Even today, 155 years after the alleged abolition of slavery in the United States, private prison societies still benefit from forced labor, as do companies that sell their goods – which are made through forced labor by uncompensated or undercompensated people – to unsuspecting consumers. ”
State Representative Tim Butler, R-Springfield noted during the debate that many state constitutions contain similar language, but some, most recently Utah and Nebraska, have passed state-level changes that remove those provisions.
“I think that gives our colleagues a sense of how important this is across the country,” he said. “If states look at their own constitutions in the same language and take action that may take place at the federal level, that’s probably a good thing.”
The Flowers resolution passed the House with one vote. It will next be sent to the Senate for review.
Also on Wednesday, the House passed House Joint Resolution 16 calling on Congress to pass laws making Washington, DC, the 51st state.
“Washington, DC has more than 700,000 residents, more than the states of Wyoming or Vermont and comparable to the states of Alaska and North Dakota,” said Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, on the floor of the house. “However, these 700,000 Americans have no US senators, no proxy in the US House of Representatives, and no way to control their own budget. The city that is the seat of our great government, a 47 percent African American city, is a symbol of disenfranchisement. “
Earlier this year, the US House passed a statehood law in the district that was to be renamed Washington, Douglass Commonwealth. But this legislation was passed in a straight line from 216 to 208 with no Republican support.
She now sits in the evenly divided US Senate, where her chances of passage are seen as negligible, mainly because she would assign the heavily democratic new state two seats in the US Senate and one seat in the House of Representatives, which affects the balance of power in Congress a lot towards the Democrats.
Guzzardi’s resolution passed the Illinois House with a similar party line, 71-42. It is now moving to the State Senate.
Both resolutions are symbolic and merely express the opinion of the Illinois General Assembly towards federal officials.
Those votes came on a day when the State House focused almost entirely on symbolic and honorary resolutions, including several renaming routes of state roads in honor of fallen US soldiers from Illinois.
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