California will not consider amending its constitution to eliminate indentured servitude as a possible punishment for crime after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration predicted paying inmates minimum wage could cost the state billions of dollars.
Democratic Sen. Sydney Kamlager said Thursday that her time and supporters are running out after the measure that banned involuntary unpaid labor last week fell seven votes short of the two-thirds margin she needed in the Senate.
She opted not to bring him back for another try after he said he still lacked support before lawmakers adjourned Thursday for a month-long summer recess.
“One of the challenges we’ve had is that people are conflating politics with a moral argument about removing words that are historic, that are loaded, that are remnants of a slave past and that were implemented in ways that made people less human.” Kamlager said in an interview.
Policy issues could have been resolved later, he argued.
The financial impact feared by Newsom’s Finance Department has not been an issue in three states (Colorado, Nebraska and Utah) that previously made similar changes, said Kamlager and Jamilia Land, who is a spokeswoman for the Coalition for the Abolition Law. California and member. coordinator of the National Network to Abolish Slavery.
And voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont will consider similar ballot measures in November.
“It is the height of hypocrisy for California to enter the national stage as a haven for liberalism at this time, when its leaders continue to enshrine slave labor practices in the state,” said the Sister Warriors Freedom Coalition, a reform group that supported the amendment, it said in a statement.
Fiscal analysts in Colorado predicted the measure passed there in 2018 would have minimal effect on its budget. The amendment therein included language intended to allow “legitimate opportunities to work” for people convicted of a crime, while prohibiting compulsory labor.
Kamlager added similar language to his proposal on Monday in a failed attempt to attract more support. Currently, California inmates can face disciplinary action for refusing to work, which can include reduced privileges such as limits on visits, phone calls, and time out of their cells.
But Colorado inmates who were punished for refusing to work sued after the amendment passed.
State attorneys said in asking to dismiss the lawsuit that Colorado voters did not intend to ban prison work programs. They argued that requiring inmates to work is part of their rehabilitation, but does not amount to forced labor and therefore does not violate the amendment.
As in California, Colorado inmates who refuse to work may lose privileges like being able to watch TV or get snacks or have their sentence reduced. But the state’s attorneys argued that their basic needs, such as food and housing, are still met and their sentences are not lengthened.
Prison officials in the three states did not respond to questions about how their states were affected when the laws were changed.
California finance officials said that, depending on court interpretations, the amendment could require payment of minimum wage to more than 65,000 inmates who now earn sometimes just a few dollars a day to fight wildfires, make license plates and cook, clean and do laundry for your fellow inmates. .
Two law professors also said the potential impact of the California proposal remained unclear, likely until legal challenges were resolved.
The state “would have to pay prisoners enough so that it’s not considered involuntary servitude,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley, law school. “But whether that would require the minimum wage would be an issue that would be litigated unless the amendment was clear on that.”
Kathleen Kim, associate dean for equity and inclusion at Loyola Law School, supported the proposed amendment, saying inmates would likely be able to seek back pay or compensation for emotional harm or forced labor if the measure is enacted.
“What I envision is a suspension of forced labor practices in prisons,” Kim said. But that probably wouldn’t spark a flood of lawsuits, she said, because he predicted administrators would have to adjust their regulations to the constitutional change.
Even programs that are considered voluntary could be seen as forced labor, Kim said, because inmates might feel they don’t have the freedom to quit. She noted that lawsuits against private prison operators have been settled in favor of immigrant detainees who were forced to work and were not paid fairly.
An earlier version of the California proposal passed the 80-member Assembly in March on a bipartisan vote of 59-0, though 17 members retained their votes.
The nation’s first task force on reparations for California blacks supported the constitutional amendment in a report that recommended a “fair market rate” for prison labor, repealing a law requiring “faithful labor” from inmates and allow inmates to decide what programs and jobs they will do.
A separate bill passed by the Senate awaiting Assembly consideration would require state prison officials to adopt a five-year plan to increase compensation to the level where inmates can purchase care packages, educational materials and maintain connections. relatives.
Associated Press writers Brian Melley in Los Angeles and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.