By Antonio Ray Harvey, California Black Media
Activists supporting legislation that would have ended involuntary servitude in California Prisons and eliminate the word “slavery” from California’s Constitution say they may have lost a battle, but they will not back down until their goals are achieved.
Late last month, the State Senate failed to pass Assembly Constitutional Amendment (ACA) 3, the California Abolition Act. If the legislature had approved the measure, it would have been placed on the November General Election ballot for voter approval.
For now, California will remain one of nine states in the country that permit involuntary servitude as a criminal punishment.
June 30 was the last day ACA 3 needed two-thirds of the Senate vote. Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), who authored ACA 3 in 2021 while serving in the Assembly, stated that the removal of the word slavery from the California constitution would have been a “substantive step toward safeguarding” the future from “the worst practice of our past.”
“Yesterday, ACA 3 failed to be heard. It did not have the 27 (votes) needed to pass off the floor,” Kamlager said in a July 1 statement. “States across the country are embarking on this journey to remove hateful and historically painful language and practices from their constitution. Until yesterday, so was California.”
The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution, ratified in 1865, prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude with one exception: if involuntary servitude was imposed as punishment for a crime.
Article I, section 6, of the California Constitution, describes the exact prohibitions on slavery and involuntary servitude and the same exception for involuntary servitude as punishment for crime.
Three states have voted to abolish slavery and involuntary servitude — Colorado, Utah, and Nebraska — and in all three cases, the initiative was bipartisan and placed on the ballot by a unanimous vote of legislators, according to Max Parthas, the co-director of the Abolish Slavery National Network (ASNN).
Kamlager said involuntary servitude “is a euphemism for forced labor” and the language should be removed entirely from the state’s constitution. On June 23, the state Senate rejected the amendment to ban the language with a 21-6 vote. Without the input of 13 Senators that did not cast a vote, ACA 3 was seven ballots shy of passage.
“The CA State Senate just reaffirmed its commitment to keeping slavery and involuntary servitude in the state’s constitution,” Kamlager tweeted after the measure failed to pass.
The legislature is now on summer recess until the first week of August.
Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), the lone Democrat that voted no against the amendment on June 23, inferred that ACA 3 raises the question of “whether or not California should require felons in state or local jails prisons to work.” He brought forth the notion based on information he received from the state’s Department of Finance (DOF).
The DOF estimated that the amendment would burden California taxpayers with $1.5 billion annually in wages to prisoners, DOF analyst Aaron Edwards told the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 16.
Samuel Nathaniel Brown, a member of the Anti-Violence Safety and Accountability Project (ASAP), an organization that advocates for prisoners’ rights, said the Senate “messed up” when it failed to remove the language out of California’s Constitution.
Brown helped author ACA 3 while he was in prison. He was released in December 2021 after serving a 24-year sentence.
“The people in California want to end slavery now. Two Senators took it upon themselves to deny the people an opportunity to vote on ACA3 and many people are disappointed and upset,” Brown said. “We will now return more educated, agitated, concentrated, and dedicated. We will eradicate the overt vestiges of white supremacy that taint our constitution, weaken our system of rehabilitation, and undermine public safety.”
ACA 3 is connected to the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans’ Interim Report that was submitted to the California Legislature on June 1.
The report examines the ongoing and compounding harms experienced by African Americans as a result of slavery and its lingering effects on American society today. It also provides to remedy those harms, including its support for ACA 3.
“This effort was uniquely personal to me,” Kamlager stated. “I will continue to fight to speak the truth about our history so that we can learn from it and be better. That is democracy.”