Measure 112 would remove slavery, the involuntary servitude provision from the Oregon Constitution

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The Oregon Constitution prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, unless it is punishment for a crime. If passed, Measure 112 will remove this exception.

“Slavery and servitude are still in our Oregon Constitution, which is sad in the times we live in that we literally have to go through these steps in order to always get rid of this old language of the past that haunts us. for decades,” said Measure 112 campaign volunteer Troy Ramsey.

If voters approve Measure 112 in November, the state constitution will no longer include an exception allowing slavery in cases where someone has been incarcerated. There is no formal opposition to the measure, but state sheriffs have expressed concern that it could disrupt work programs like those found in correctional facilities like the one shown here in this file photo from 2021 in Salem.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff/OPB

Section 34 of the Oregon Constitution currently states, “There shall be no slavery or involuntary servitude in the State, other than as punishment for a crime the party of which shall have been duly convicted.”

It’s the second part of the sentence – beginning with “otherwise” – that would be stripped from the constitution if voters pass Measure 112.

Last year, state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved Joint Senate Resolution 10, putting that proposed constitutional change before voters in November. The resolution notes that the Oregon Constitution “contains outdated language” and states “there shall be no exception to an absolute and absolute prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude.”

Support behind Measure 112 is broad and there is no formal opposition campaign. Proponents argue that it is a statement of values.

“This is an essential first step in having conversations with the public and with lawmakers about how incarcerated people should be treated,” said Sandy Chung, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, which supports measure 112.

But eliminating “involuntary servitude” as a punishment for a crime worries some. Jails and other correctional facilities operate on the labor of those in custody and, in the case of the Oregon Department of Corrections, pay those in custody as little as $8 per month, according to the agency.

And although state agencies aren’t allowed to take a position on the ballot measures, Rob Persson, deputy director of operations at the Oregon Department of Corrections, testified before lawmakers while the measure was still being debated. . He said those running the prison system had concerns.

“The DOC recognizes that forced labor in prison is sometimes perceived as modern slavery,” he said. “The DOC thinks the perception is misplaced, at least with respect to how adults in custody are engaged in prison labor programs in Oregon prisons.”

In 1994, voters passed a constitutional amendment that established work requirements for people in custody. Proponents of Measure 112 say the intent is not to repeal work requirements, but rather to “work in tandem” with those requirements.

Although there is no “vote no” campaign, the Oregon State Sheriffs Association opposes Measure 112. In a statement filed with the Secretary of State’s office, the sheriffs state that they “do not condone or support slavery and/or involuntary servitude in any form”. .”

Still, they argue, the current language could create problems for some local jails. They say Measure 112 only applies to convicted persons, not those in pre-trial detention. They also state that work programs in prisons are not “ordered by a court or a probation or parole officer” as Measure 112 would require, giving prisons no authority to have work programs, say the sheriffs.

“Participation by [adults in custody] in these programs is voluntary, but the way this measure is drafted any involvement in a prison program by an AIC without an order from a court, probation officer, or parole officer would likely be considered a involuntary servitude.

The Oregon State Sheriffs Association did not respond to a request for an interview.

Slavery has always been unconstitutional in Oregon, which should not be taken as an indication that the state has had no problem with racism or the way it treats prisoners. In fact, the original state constitution prohibited black people from living or working in the state.

Proponents say the measure doesn’t just affect states with a history of slavery. Since 2018, voters in Nebraska, Utah and Colorado — all states where slavery has never been legal — have approved changes eliminating the word “slavery” from their constitutions.

Earlier this year in Colorado, inmates sued the governor and the prison system arguing that forcing them to work violates that state’s anti-slavery provision, which voters passed in 2018. The lawsuit is ongoing. . A previous lawsuit seeking to increase the salaries of detainees was dismissed.

“I can’t say there won’t be litigation,” in Oregon, Chung said. “But I can say that in other states the litigation has not been successful.”

This fall, residents of Vermont, Louisiana, Alabama and Tennessee will vote on similar constitutional amendments.

According to the Secretary of State’s office, Measure 112 would have an “undetermined” financial impact on local and state coffers if passed.

“The measure does not require additional revenue or expenditure for the state government; however, the measure’s impact will depend on possible legal action or changes to inmate work programs,” according to the agency’s analysis published in the voter guide.

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