OPINION | Amendment 7: Lesson in voter awareness

Doxey Kamara, Intersections Editor

Mylie Bluhm

Louisiana Amendment 7, which appeared on voter ballots in November, has caused some confusion among voters. While involuntary servitude is generally unlawful in the United States, there is one exception. Involuntary servitude, slavery and compulsory labor are all acceptable when assigned as punishment for a crime.

Amendment 7 would remove this involuntary servitude exception, prohibiting involuntary servitude in its entirety. Institutions like the Louisiana State Penitentiary, however, still force prisoners to pick cotton on plantations. These prisoners can make as little as two cents an hour — meaning an inmate would need to work twenty-five hours for a fifty-cent pack of ramen noodles.

On its surface, Amendment 7 sounds like a good thing. Unfortunately, it’s more flawed than it seems. The Louisiana Constitution prohibits both slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishments for a crime. In its current state, Amendment 7 may not impact people sentenced to punishment with hard labor. The language of Amendment 7, according to Representative Edmond Jordan, has been changed so severely that it may not meaningfully alter language in the Louisiana Constitution. Representative Jordan encouraged voters to vote “No,” so that lawmakers could revise the language and remove ambiguity.

Fortunately for Jordan and other supporters of Amendment 7’s original sentiments, 60.9 percent of voters chose not to implement Amendment 7 in its current state. There will be another chance for lawmakers to revise the amendment and present to voters in the future. 

The amendment, in its current state, is most severely harmed by ambiguous language. The rejected amendment reads: “Do you support an amendment to prohibit the use of involuntary servitude except as it applies to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice?”  The exception provided is, in spirit, the same as the provisions for involuntary servitude already provided in the constitution. Until that language is revised or eliminated, Amendment 7 will not carry out its initial function of removing the exceptions regarding punishment.

This amendment is a lesson for voters in the importance of researching what they vote for. Some language suggests that voting “yes” on passing Louisiana Amendment 7 would have supported removing language that allows the state to punish crime with involuntary servitude and that a “no” vote opposed it. Without the efforts of people who formerly supported the bill — such as Representative Edmond Johnson — many voters would have likely supported passing the amendment. If it passed, then any substantial change to institutional forced labor would have been hindered, at least in the state of Louisiana, for quite some time.

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