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California Voters Will Be Able To Amend State's Constitution To Prohibit Any Kind Of Forced Labor

In 1850, California joined the United States, banning indentured servitude and slavery except as criminal punishment. Now, 174 years later, California voters will decide on a measure to completely prohibit forced labor. The State Senate approved this measure for the November ballot, passing it with a 33-3 vote.

Authored by Assemblymember Lori Wilson, this measure is one of 14 bills prioritized by the California Legislative Black Caucus, reflecting recommendations from a state-funded reparations task force that highlighted the legacy of slavery and inequality. The measure, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 8, primarily targets state prison inmates.

Wilson emphasized the importance of correcting historical wrongs and treating everyone with dignity. Racial justice activists have long advocated for a constitutional amendment to end involuntary servitude. States like Colorado, Alabama, Vermont, and Tennessee have passed similar measures. Voters in Nevada will also decide on a similar amendment this November.

California prisons assign about 65,000 work assignments annually. Critics argue that inmates face retaliation for refusing dangerous assignments, impacting their rehabilitation efforts. 

Lawrence Cox, a former inmate, recounted how forced labor hindered his education and rehabilitation.

The campaign for the anti-slavery measure insists it does not oppose prisoners working but stresses the importance of voluntary, dignified work. Incarcerated workers in California perform various tasks, earning minimal wages. The proposed amendment seeks to ban forced labor while allowing voluntary work assignments.

Efforts to end forced labor in California prisons faced challenges in 2022 due to cost concerns. This year, supporters revised the proposal, allowing voluntary work while forbidding forced labor. This compromise gained broader support, including from Governor Gavin Newsom's administration and the California Democratic Party. Newsom does not need to sign the bill for it to appear on the ballot, and his office declined to comment.

The upcoming vote on California's Assembly Constitutional Amendment 8 offers a profound opportunity to correct a grave historical injustice embedded within our state constitution. For too long, the clause allowing forced labor as criminal punishment has perpetuated a form of modern-day slavery, targeting primarily marginalized communities and infringing upon basic human dignity.


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