Dec 5, 2022 - Politics

The fight to ban slavery in Ohio

Illustration of the Ohio State Capitol with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Efforts toward banning slavery and indentured servitude as criminal punishment in Ohio may require voters' approval.

State of play: The 13th Amendment's ratification in 1865 abolished slavery nationwide, but allowed an exception for criminal punishment ā€” an exception still on the books in states like Ohio.

Why it matters: Advocates say the Ohio Constitution as written perpetuates racist criminal justice practices like prison overpopulation.

  • While Black Ohioans make up just 13% of the overall state population, they represent 45% of the state prison population, state data from July shows.

Threat level: Imprisoned people are often forced to endure back-breaking work, earning as little as a few pennies per hour in wages, without standard labor protections.

  • They can face punishment for not working, such as losing visitation privileges with loved ones.
  • Legislative attempts to amend the constitution at the Ohio Statehouse, built in the 1800s by prison laborers, have been repeatedly stymied.

The latest: A Republican-led committee has spent fewer than 10 total minutes publicly considering one such proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 1, over the current two-year term. The latest hearing was nearly 18 months ago.

  • State Sen. Cecil Thomas (D-Cincinnati), the resolution's sponsor, tells Axios he is trying to add the language into another piece of legislation during the present lame duck session but will likely have to start over again in 2023.

What they're saying: "It makes common sense," he says, adding that he thinks politics, rather than policy disagreement, is holding up the resolution's progress.

Zoom in: The nonprofit Ensuring Parole for Incarcerated Citizens (EPIC) has spent years pushing Ohio to "End the Exception."

Context: The issue is personal for EPIC president Jeanna Kenney because her husband, Peter, has been in prison since his conviction for a 2001 murder. (EPIC has protested his imprisonment as a wrongful conviction.)

  • Forced labor is wrong, Kenney tells Axios, but prisoners who do have to work should make legitimate wages to help with family visitation costs and commissary needs.
  • "Just because they're prisoners, they're still human beings," she says.

What we're watching: Kenney acknowledges it will take an enormous effort from a broad coalition of criminal justice reformers to pass a state constitutional amendment.

  • But she and Thomas are optimistic following the recent ballot successes in Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont and Alabama that prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment.

Yes, but: There are major hurdles to amending the Ohio Constitution via ballot initiative, and the process may get even more difficult next year.

Since 1912, Ohioans have been afforded the opportunity to amend the state constitution at the ballot box.

  • The onerous process is designed to weed out unworthy proposals seeking lasting consequences.
  • It involves the collection of hundreds of thousands of signatures across the state, wading through technical ballot steps, and then convincing a majority of Ohioans to vote in favor of the measure.

What's happening: Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Ashville) want a higher vote threshold of 60% for an amendment to pass.

  • Ironically, it would require just a 50% approval under the current rules to raise the threshold.

Between the lines: Critics view this as an effort by Republicans to ward off potential ballot initiatives on issues like securing abortion rights and reform of the state's redistricting process, the AP reports.

The other side: Stewart told colleagues in committee testimony that a broader consensus of 60% is needed to protect against outside special interests wanting to enact "permanent, fundamental changes."

What we're watching: That his new proposal received an initial hearing last week indicates the possibility Republicans will fast-track its passage before the legislative term ends later this month.

  • Doing so would put this issue before voters in May 2023.
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