House Joint Resolution 8, by Rep. Sandra Hollins, targets a clause in the Utah constitution allowing slavery as a form of criminal punishment. Hollins told her fellow representatives on Monday that the exemption to a blanket ban on slavery originated with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery.
"When the 13th Amendment was written, there was a provision that was placed in there that stated that if you were convicted of a crime that you could still be placed into slavery or involuntary servitude."
Hollins said the same provision was adopted by a number of state constitutions, Utah among them, for a seemingly practical reason: the labor shortage - meaning the end of forced labor - that emancipation created.
"They were wondering who was going to work the farms, who was going to work the plantations, where was this free labor going to come from - and so they embedded this in our United States Constitution," she said.
"A lot of states, including Utah, followed suit," Hollins said.
HJR 8 would let Utahns vote next November on a proposed amendment to the constitution striking a slavery ban exemption, something Hollins said was overdue.
"This no longer reflects who we are as Utahns and it no longer reflects our values or where we are trying to move to as a state," she said.
Rep. Hollins said some people had questioned whether lifting that exemption would mean that inmates in Utah wouldn't be able to work. She said her bill was about addressing a historical injustice and not about preventing those incarcerated from working.
The measure passed on a unanimous vote in the House and received a standing ovation from the gallery. It now moves to the Senate.