End Punishment Clause in 13th Amendment

Floor Speech

Date: Dec. 7, 2020
Location: Washington, DC


Mr. CLAY. Mr. Speaker, I wanted to share with the House that I am really reserving the time for Mr. Butterfield from North Carolina, but I will begin. I want to thank my colleague, Mr. Butterfield, for leading this Special Order hour this evening.

Mr. Speaker, our Nation was founded on principles of liberty and justice for some, but not for all. In fact, it took 89 years after the Declaration of Independence and a brutal Civil War to finally end most forms of slavery.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on December 6, 1865, ending slavery but preserving involuntary servitude for some incarcerated persons.

After a raging debate, former slaveholders in the Southern States held enough influence to preserve the practice and were able to include a loophole in the 13th Amendment to continue to allow slavery as punishment for a crime.

Over the next 155 years, that punishment clause was used as a club to overincarcerate African Americans and other minorities for profit and in complete violation of their human dignity.

Black Americans were immediately targeted and arrested by law enforcement for minor infractions, and the practice of forced prison labor began and still persists to this day.

That is why I, joined by Senator Jeff Merkley from Oregon, introduced legislation to amend the Constitution to clarify that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude may be used as punishment for a crime.

I am pleased that many of my colleagues, including Congressman Cedric Richmond, incoming Assistant Speaker Congresswoman Katherine Clark, and many of my colleagues in the CBC and broader Tri-Caucus, have also taken a leadership role on this issue in legislation.

Confronting and rooting out the systemic racism that is still rampant in many facets of American life requires us to examine the painful truth in order to fix it. It is an indisputable historical fact that many local and State law enforcement practices in this country grew out of the legacy of racism and slavery.

As millions of Americans are demanding criminal justice reform and a change in the training and culture of policing, passage of this constitutional amendment would send a clear signal: Bigotry and profits will no longer be used to deny any person their dignity.

Our criminal justice system and laws cannot be fully respected until we end this injustice that allows disproportionate numbers of Black and Brown people to be imprisoned and enslaved.

As I retire from Congress next month, I urge my colleagues to make passage of this legislation an urgent national priority. America cannot heal and move forward until we have real equality for all instead of just for some.