State senate approves constitutional amendment banning involuntary servitude – except for prisoners

New Hampshire’s State Senate on Wednesday, May 15, 2024.

New Hampshire’s State Senate on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. JEREMY MARGOLIS—Monitor staff

By JEREMY MARGOLIS

Monitor staff

Published: 05-15-2024 4:34 PM

Modified: 05-15-2024 4:47 PM


An amendment to New Hampshire’s constitution that would codify a ban on slavery and involuntary servitude could head to New Hampshire voters’ ballots in November  – but it may include a carve out for those convicted of a crime.

After the state’s House of Representatives voted nearly unanimously in February to propose an amendment that would ban slavery and involuntary servitude universally, the Republican-majority state Senate voted Wednesday 14-10 along party lines to add the crime conviction exception to the language of the proposed amendment, arguing that the amendment was a thinly-veiled attempt at prison reform.

The bill will now go back before the House for a vote.

Slavery and involuntary servitude are already prohibited under the 13th amendment of the U.S. constitution, which contains a criminal conviction exception, but the prohibition has never been added to New Hampshire’s constitution.

Republican state senators seek to add to New Hamsphire’s constitution the exact language of the 13th amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within New Hampshire, or any place subject to its jurisdiction.”

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, support language that states that “[a]ll persons have the right to be free from slavery and involuntary servitude.”

Sen. Howard Pearl, a Loudon Republican, said that a blanket ban could prevent prisons from requiring those incarcerated to work as punishment for disciplinary issues or to clean up their own cells. A blanket ban could also complicate criminal sentences that involve community service, he said.

“If the [amendment] sponsors want to get rid of prison labor in New Hampshire, bring in a bill,” Sen. Pearl said. “It should not be hidden in a constitutional amendment that appears to simply affirm a ban on slavery.”

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Sen. Debra Altschiller, a Stratham Democrat, countered that “banning slavery with no exceptions isn’t a hard lift.”

“Unilaterally, the senate Republicans amended this important [amendment] to include exemption language allowing for the arcane and inhumane practice of slavery and involuntary servitude for those who have been convicted of a crime,” senate Democrats said in a statement following the vote.

For a constitutional amendment in New Hampshire to pass, it needs the support of three-fifths of both Houses of the state legislature and two-thirds of voters.