It feels weird to say it, but Tuesday night, Colorado voters took a stand against legal slavery. State residents came together and cast a vote on Colorado Amendment A, which asked “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime and thereby prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude in all circumstances?”
The questions of legal slavery can stop conversation at most any dinner party, but it is an issue that the Rocky Mountain State has never fully addressed. The U.S. was one of the final “civilized” nations that decided to officially kill the barbaric Roman-era institution, and it waited all the way up into the mid-1800s to do it. No surprise, then, that some individual states were slow to jump onboard with federal law and ratify the move in their state constitutions.
The state of Colorado retained some aspects of legal slavery, for example, in relation to its treatment of convicts. The Colorado Constitution says slavery and involuntary servitude are allowable for the punishment of a crime, but Amendment A’s passage removed that exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude in the case of punishment.
While many would consider a “yes” vote to be the default position of most free-thinking nations since the 19th Century, the amendment actually had some fairly strong opposition.
Republican Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein argued that killing the clause could throw a curveball to the state’s penal system.
“While those pushing the amendment advertise it as ‘abolishing slavery’ that occurred more than 150 years ago, with most low-level offenses carrying jail, fines and community service as the only sentencing options, I fear that [passing Amendment A] will result in more low-risk offenders filling our jails and would disproportionately incarcerate indigent offenders who lack the ability to pay fines,” Rubinstein wrote in an email to The Colorado Independent.
Rubinstein wrote that he would “be happy to support a measure that eliminates the slavery language, but specifically authorizes court-ordered community service.”
Jumoke Emery, lead organizer for Abolish Slavery Colorado, and director of campaigns for ProgressiveNow Colorado, said the 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, failed to fully kill slavery, however, and needed help.
“We don’t want to impact [inmate work-release’ programs at all,” Emery stated. “We did our due diligence ahead of time, and we had legal assistance from the state legislature, from the ACLU, to make sure changing the wording [in the state Constitution] wouldn’t impact those programs.”
Boulder, Colorado resident Elizabeth Wright — who voted early in support of the amendment — said she supported it because the government didn’t need to be working inmates without pay in the first place.
“I believe those prisoners have a right to earn money while working in prison, even if they still owe debt,” Wright told Grit Post. “It’s an outdated law with outdated wording, and our prison system is already overrun with corruption, and maybe this will help curtail some of the abuse of prisoners in the system.”
Long after the Civil War, states like Mississippi abused prisoner work programs. Many even allowed prisoners to work for companies without compensation, which qualifies as slavery in every sense of the word. Legal scholars like Colorado ACLU executive director Nathan Woodliff-Stanley said leaving the loophole in place “really does leave open the constitutional door for full-on slavery.”
This November, Colorado voters slammed the door shut on slavery with a 65-35 vote in favor of the amendment.