Utah voters remove slavery as punishment for a crime from constitution

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UTAH (KTVX) — Utah voters on Tuesday passed an amendment to remove slavery as a punishment for a crime from the state constitution, The Associated Press confirmed.

In late November 2018, KTVX reported that slavery was still technically legal in the state.

Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch, said the wording within the article needed to be changed.

“It’s something that should be done immediately,” said Williams. “What they’re trying to get around is saying slavery is not OK but then saying ‘except.’ That right there is very troubling.”

Article I, Section 21 of the Utah Constitution reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within this State.”

Paul Cassell, a professor of law at the University of Utah, explained in an interview with KTVX in 2018 what he believes the article means and who he thinks is affected by it.

“I think it’s pretty clear that this is a provision confined to prison situations. Certainly, no one is going to be able to have a slave outside of prison walls,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair to refer to prisoners as slaves. We have a sorry history of slavery in this country, and that’s African Americans who were taken into a condition of slavery having done nothing wrong. To say that a prisoner who is duly confined is also a slave I think is to conflate two very different things.”

Utah’s Constitution was written in 1895. Cassell said the language of the amendment is outdated, and punishments that were permitted — moral or ethical — more than 100 years ago are no longer acceptable today.

In February 2019, a bill to remove slavery from Utah’s constitution passed unanimously in a House committee.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, the sponsor of the resolution, received a standing ovation at the time.

“I am overwhelmed and I am grateful. I think those are the only two words to describe how I feel after that experience,” she said.

Utah’s Senate committee followed suit, also passing the resolution unanimously.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, joint sponsor of the resolution, said he had been taken aback that the wording had existed.

“I was surprised to discover that this provision was still in the Utah State Constitution,” he said. “Removing this outdated provision sends a strong, bipartisan statement about our values as citizens of Utah.”

Colorado abolished similar language in its constitution in 2018.

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