I was in a recent meeting when Prison Fellowship president Jim Liske quoted it. I couldn't believe it but then I read the 13th Amendment and there it was: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction". How could this be in our Constitution? Do we really believe if someone has been convicted of a crime they can legally become a slave?
Next year, we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Might we begin today the process of amending it by removing the "convict clause". It is simply unconscionable to treat those who have been convicted of a crime in such an un-American way. I am not a constitutional scholar or a legislator but I am a pastor who believes in grace. When someone has served their time and paid their debt to society they are free. We should forgive them and they should have the opportunity to restore their lives. There can be no statement in our most cherished legal document that indicates otherwise.
The history of the 13th Amendment does not clearly indicate why the "convict clause" wording is in the Amendment. In 1864 Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner submitted a constitutional amendment stating: "All persons are equal before the law, so that no person can hold another as a slave; and the Congress shall have power to make all laws necessary and proper to carry this declaration into effect everywhere in the United States." The Senate Judiciary Committee chose instead to present an amendment with text from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that included the extra clause. Sumner's amendment is superior, simpler and should have been adopted. But he challenged the custom of sending proposed amendments to the Judiciary Committee and thus age-old political infighting may be the reason why we have this wrong wording in our Constitution to this day.
Those who know much more than I about the prison system will tell you the rates of recidivism are way too high (70 percent), the re-entry process for ex-prisoners is not nearly supportive enough and the job prospects are too few. Restoring voting rights for non-violent offenders, as we have done in my state of Virginia, is a good step in the right direction. This necessary policy needs to be enacted across our country. But there is much more we can do to help our former prisoners become fully contributing citizens. Those who work and minister in this area know many programs that can move us in the right direction and take advantage of what these men and women have to offer our country.
If the Constitution says those convicted of a crime are forever eligible for involuntary servitude we can never get to such a place of progress. Maybe it is just a symbolic step since we know no one is actually enslaved anymore because they were convicted of a crime. But symbolism is important. When the highest percentage of prisoners of any race is African-American and slavery was our greatest national sin against that race then the symbolism really does matter.
I have written a book about comebacks and how people can overcome setbacks in their lives. Many who are or have been incarcerated find the book helpful in offering them comeback stories and steps to make a comeback. Americans believe in second chances, we celebrate comebacks. All of us have experienced setbacks in our lives whether it is divorce, financial issues, health problems or other setbacks. Having a corporate comeback, team comeback or personal comeback is a trait woven in the very fabric of our country. Someone who has served their sentence and been released deserves a comeback opportunity. As long as our Constitution says a released prisoner can still be a slave they are not fully free to pursue it. It will be a long process to amend the Constitution. Votes by the Senate and the House with a two-thirds majority are required. Then every state in the Union will need to vote with a three-fourths majority to pass the revision. The time to start is now.