Effort to close slavery loophole breezes through Utah Senate committee

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 panel of Utah senators on Monday agreed that the state constitution’s language on slavery has an inappropriate loophole for criminal convicts.

The state’s guiding document currently says that slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, “except as a punishment for a crime.” But Utah Rep. Sandra Hollins says slavery should be forbidden under all circumstances and is pushing to delete the exception language.

The loophole, which mirrors language in the U.S. Constitution, “no longer reflects who we are as Utahns,” she said Monday.

Her resolution to remove the wording already passed the House, and the Senate Business and Labor Committee unanimously gave it a favorable recommendation on Monday. If the resolution passes both sides of the Legislature, it would let Utah voters decide on the proposed constitutional change in the 2020 election.

The Senate committee on Monday did adopt a substitute clarifying that the slavery prohibition "does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of the criminal justice system." Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said she offered the substitute to quell fears that the constitutional change would interfere with inmate work programs and other elements of the legal system.

During the committee hearing, she pointed out that 2019 marks the 400th year since the first enslaved Africans stepped onto American soil.

“I think that this is pretty awesome that this is the time that ... we’re looking at this bipartisan support to finally start looking at closing this chapter in our history,” Hollins said.