Strike slavery clause from Minnesota’s constitution, officials urge

A woman stands behind a podium, four men stand around her listening.
St. Paul DFL state Rep. Rena Moran said Thursday that as the great-great granddaughter of slaves, she took Minnesota's exception to a ban on slavery personally, and was sponsoring a bill to amend the state constitution and strike language allowing slavery and "involuntary servitude" as punishment for a crime.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

A group of Minnesota lawmakers, along with St. Paul’s police chief, called on voters Thursday to purge an antiquated clause in the state’s constitution that still allows for slavery as punishment for a crime.

The state constitution, dating back to its adoption in 1857, technically makes slavery legal in certain circumstances, reading: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the state otherwise than as punishment for a crime of which the party has been convicted.”

The crime exception caught the attention of Todd Axtell, St. Paul’s chief, who in December vowed to eliminate the clause.

“It’s important that this wording is removed,” Axtell told reporters Thursday at the Capitol.

“When people go into the criminal justice system, when they are entered in the department of corrections, it should not be viewed as an exception to slavery,” he said. “People who are paying their debt to society should not be viewed and should not be treated as if they are slaves.”

The proposal would put the change on this November’s ballot, and would require a yes vote from a majority of all voters to make the change — a count including those who do not vote on the measure.

The Legislature would have to approve putting it on the ballot by a simple majority, but the measure does not require action by Gov. Tim Walz.

State Rep. Rena Moran, co-author of a bill to ask voters to back the constitutional change, said the language allowing slavery as a criminal punishment needed to be purged.

“As the great-great-granddaughter of slaves, this issue is personal to me. It’s a matter of human dignity,” said Moran, DFL-St. Paul. “It’s unacceptable for our state to sanction slavery or involuntary servitude under any circumstance. It’s time for this language to be eliminated.”

Colorado removed similar language from its books recently, and other states, including Vermont, Nebraska and Utah are weighing similar measures, Axtell said, noting the language would not have any impact on past, present or future prison sentences. Lawmakers said it would also not legally affect prison labor programs in the state.

The House bill is expected to be heard Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee. State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, is carrying the bill in the Senate.

There were initially no Republican co-authors. Senate and House leadership — representing both parties — wouldn’t commit to backing the proposal, at least for this session, before lawmakers gathered in St. Paul earlier this month.

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