The Oregon Constitution prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, unless it is a punishment for a crime. If passed, Measure 112 would remove that exception.
“Slavery and servitude is still in our Oregon Constitution, which is sad in the day and age that we live in that we have to literally go through these steps in order to still get rid of that old language from the past that’s been haunting us for decades,” said Troy Ramsey, volunteer with the Measure 112 campaign.
Section 34 of the Oregon Constitution currently states: “There shall be neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude in the State, otherwise than as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
It’s the second part of the sentence — beginning with “otherwise” — that would be removed from the constitution if voters pass Measure 112.
Last year, state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved Senate Joint Resolution 10, putting this proposed constitutional change before voters this November. The resolution notes the Oregon Constitution “contains antiquated language” and reads “there must be no exception to an unqualified and absolute prohibition on slavery and involuntary servitude.”
The support behind Measure 112 is broad and there’s no formal opposition campaign. Proponents argue it’s a statement of values.
“This is a critical first step for having conversations with the public and with legislators about how incarcerated people should be treated,” said Sandy Chung, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, which supports Measure 112.
But eliminating “involuntary servitude” as punishment for a crime, concerns some. Prisons and other carceral settings operate off the labor of those who are in custody, and in the case of the Oregon Department of Corrections, pay people in custody as little as $8 per month, according to the agency.
And while state agencies aren’t allowed to take positions on ballot measures, Rob Persson, assistant director of operations at the Oregon Department of Corrections, testified before lawmakers when the measure was still being debated. He said those running the prison system had concerns.
“DOC recognizes that compelled prison labor is sometimes perceived as modern-day slavery,” he said. “DOC believes that perception is misplaced, at least with respect to the manner in which adults in custody are engaged in prison work programs in Oregon’s prisons.”
In 1994, voters passed a constitutional amendment that established work requirements for people in custody. Supporters of Measure 112 say the intent is not to repeal work requirements, but rather “work in tandem” with those requirements.
While there is no “vote no” campaign, the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association opposes Measure 112. In a statement filed with the Secretary of State’s Office, the sheriffs state they “do not condone or support slavery and/or involuntary servitude in any form.”
Yet, they argue, the current language could create problems for some local jails. They say Measure 112 only applies to those convicted, not people in custody pre-trial. They also state work programs in jails are not “ordered by a court or a probation or parole officer” as Measure 112 would require, giving the jails no authority to have work programs, the sheriffs argue.
“Participation by [adults in custody] in these programs is voluntary, but the way this measure is written any involvement in a Jail program by an AIC without an order from a court, probation officer or parole officer would likely be seen as involuntary servitude.”
The Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association did not respond to a request for an interview.
Slavery has always been unconstitutional in Oregon, which should not be seen as indicating that the state has had no issues with racism or with how it treats prisoners. In fact, the state’s original constitution banned Black people from living or working in the state.
Supporters say the measure isn’t only for states with a history of slavery though. Since 2018, voters in Nebraska, Utah and Colorado — all states where slavery was never legal — approved changes eliminating the word “slavery” from their constitutions.
Earlier this year in Colorado, people in custody sued the governor and prison system arguing that forcing them to work violates that state’s anti-slavery provision, which voters passed in 2018. The lawsuit is pending. A previous lawsuit to raise wages for people in custody was dismissed.
“I can’t say that there won’t be litigation,” in Oregon, Chung said. “But I can say in other states the litigation hasn’t been successful.”
This fall, folks in Vermont, Louisiana, Alabama and Tennessee will vote on similar constitutional amendments.
According to the Secretary of State’s office, Measure 112 would have an “indeterminate” financial impact on local and state coffers if it passes.
“The measure does not require additional state government revenues or expenditures; however the impact of the measure will depend on potential legal action or changes to inmate work programs,” according to the agency’s analysis published in the voter guide.