House committee votes to strip slavery loophole from Utah Constitution: ‘What a tragedy that it’s taken so long to get to it’

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, speaks as the Utah House debates the Prison Relocation Commission's recommendation to build a new correctional facility in Salt Lake City before voting to approve it, in Salt Lake City, Wednesday August 19, 2015.

A Utah House committee declared unanimously Tuesday that it's high time to prohibit slavery — without exception — under the state constitution.

"The word slavery belongs nowhere in any policy or law or documents in Utah. It is an ugly thing. It needs to be removed immediately," said Lex Scott, a leader in Black Lives Matter Utah who said her ancestors were enslaved.

Right now, Utah’s cornerstone document forbids slavery “except as a punishment for a crime,” language taken from the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Rep. Sandra Hollins on Tuesday argued for stripping this loophole from the Utah Constitution, a proposal seconded by religious leaders and activists who said the change was long overdue.

With a unanimous vote of support from the House Judiciary Committee, Hollins' resolution will now move to the full chamber for a decision. If it clears the Legislature by a two-thirds majority, the proposed constitutional revisions would come before voters in the 2020 election.

Ashley Cleveland, a Salt Lake City resident, testified that Hollins' proposal would have significance to her as a new mother.

“Being that we have this opportunity to change something like this in 2019 makes me very proud to say I currently live in Utah and am raising a young, black child in Utah,” she said.

During the committee hearing, Hollins explained that the slavery loophole was incorporated into the 13th Amendment to address concerns about potential labor shortages. Subsequently, many Southern states passed “black codes,” or laws that severely restricted African Americans and allowed authorities to arrest them for almost any reason.

“A person could be walking down what, they considered, the wrong side of the street or could drop a piece of paper, and they could be arrested,” Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said.

Then, through a practice called “convict leasing,” states were able to generate funds by putting black inmates to work without paying them.

Many say this system of oppression has survived to the current day, pointing to the disproportionate number of African Americans in the nation’s prisons, where inmates are often paid well below the minimum wage for their work. A representative from the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City testified that changing the state’s constitution could represent a step toward more humane corrections policies.

“While we don’t expect this change to mean prisoners get paid a living wage, it does reflect an understanding that even a human being in prison is still a human being and not property,” Jean Hill, a government liaison with the diocese, told the committee.

Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake branch of the NAACP, also spoke in support of the resolution, and members of the committee chimed in to thank Hollins for bringing the slavery exception to light, framing her proposal as an opportunity to come together.

“What a tragedy that it’s taken so long to get to it. It almost brings a tear to my eye that we have to have this conversation,” Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, said. “This comes from someone who doesn’t believe much in playing around with our constitution.”

Similar slavery exceptions exist in several other state constitutions — in Oregon and Nevada, for instance.

Voters in Colorado last year stripped the exception from their state constitution, after a previous push to remove the clause had failed. In 2016, Colorado voters rejected the first attempt to strike the slavery language from their constitution, although some surmised this was because of the ballot question’s convoluted wording.