Amendment A: What’s the argument against Colorado’s ballot measure to ban slavery? Ask these guys.

Colorado voters passed in 2016 on a chance to outlaw slavery once and for all in the state. The measure's back on the ballot this year. (Photo by Alex Burness for The Colorado Independent)

It’s not easy to find people who oppose the effort to finally, formally ban slavery in Colorado, but they do exist.

Two Western Slope district attorneys say they’re concerned Amendment A — which would remove the state’s constitutional provision that allows for legal slavery or involuntary servitude as criminal punishment — would create chaos in the legal system by banning court-ordered community service in Colorado.

Many others disagree with their assessment.

“While those pushing the amendment advertise it as ‘abolishing slavery,’ that occurred more than 150 years ago,” wrote Dan Rubinstein, the Republican D.A. from Mesa County (Grand Junction), in an email to The Colorado Independent. “With most low-level offenses carrying jail, fines and community service as the only sentencing options, I fear that (the passage of Amendment A) will result in more low-risk offenders filling our jails and would disproportionately incarcerate indigent offenders who lack the ability to pay fines.”

Rubinstein added, “I would be happy to support a measure that eliminates the slavery language, but specifically authorizes court-ordered community service. As written I cannot support his measure.”

Amendment A asks: “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime and thereby prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude in all circumstances?”

Also in an email to The Independent, Dan Hotsenpiller, the Democratic D.A. who represents six counties in west-central Colorado, said he cannot predict how courts in the state will rule if Amendment A passes. In his note, he wondered whether community service will be “affected or precluded” as a sentencing option, and whether “work programs in the Department of Corrections and other detention facilities will be impacted.”

“What I do know is that there will be legal uncertainty that will likely take years to resolve surrounding both of those issues if Amendment A is passed,” he said.

Asked on follow-up whether Hotsenpiller’s reservations will lead him to vote against Amendment A, a spokeswoman for Hotsenpiller said he was busy for the next two days and unavailable to respond.

There are many work-release programs for Colorado inmates, plus paid opportunities for inmates to work in laundry services, food services and even in wildland firefighting, among other areas. Those jobs pay just cents per hour — less than $1 a day, in some cases. No one interviewed by The Independent seems to believe paid prison labor would be directly affected if Amendment A passes.

Related: Front-line felons: Colorado prison inmates fight wildfires for $6 a day

Jumoke Emery, lead organizer for Abolish Slavery Colorado, said the measure was carefully crafted with the input of lawmakers and lawyers, and that neither the intent of Amendment A nor its potential effect is to do away with community service sentences or work-release programs.

“Time and time again, research has shown that folks who have the ability to work while incarcerated, who have the ability to do community service, that it reduces recidivism,” Emery said. “We don’t want to impact those programs at all. We did our due diligence ahead of time, and we had legal assistance from the state legislature, from the ACLU, to make sure changing the wording (in the state Constitution) wouldn’t impact those programs.”

Emery added that he thinks the two Western Slope district attorneys are “either intentionally deluding folks or sadly mistaken.”

“They haven’t done their research,” he said.

Emery said he wasn’t aware of any public officials, other than Hostenpiller and Rubinstein, who aren’t fully supportive of the measure. He did say, however, that Abolish Slavery Colorado social media accounts have received some racist messages and that the campaign’s organizers have been called “(N-word), monkey, all sorts of things.”

“Sometimes with the vitriol, you can’t tell if folks are really being sincere or if they’re just trolling,” Emery said, “but with the timbre of political discourse in our country nowadays, there are folks willing to take all kinds of surprising positions on all sorts of issues, and ours is no exception.”

The Independent reached out to George Brauchler and Phil Weiser, the two candidates for state attorney general, for their reads of Amendment A.

Brauchler, a Republican who currently serves as D.A. in Colorado’s largest judicial district — it includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Lincoln and Elbert counties — said he’s supporting Amendment A and that he’s spoken with colleagues in the legal community about the problems Rubinstein and Hotsenpiller say the measure would create.

“My sense is that it’s probably something that a crafty defense attorney is probably going to try to argue to the court,” he said. “But I hope the court doesn’t interpret it” the same way the Western Slope officials have.

Brauchler added, “I think there’s probably an open question that will be haggled at the court about this, but any concern about that potentiality doesn’t overwhelm my interest in supporting (Amendment) A.”

Weiser said he’s voting for the measure and that he is “not concerned about it being misused in a way that apparently one or two district attorneys fear.

“This amendment has a pretty clear reading, and I really don’t see it causing the mischief that some are worried about.”

It seems likely that the days are numbered for the constitutional provision in question, and that Coloradans are primed to legally clarify that slavery is not, in fact, allowed here. Amendment A has broad support, including the endorsement of 100 percent of state legislators, plus myriad public officials throughout the state from all over the political spectrum.

Voters narrowly rejected a version of the same question in 2016, which many attributed to the measure’s confusing wording: “Shall there be an amendment to Colorado Constitution concerning the removal of the exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude when used as punishment for persons duly convicted of a crime?”

Asked about this year’s measure, Emery said, “I hope, as I hoped in 2016, that Coloradans choose to do the right thing and vote yes to abolish slavery.”

While the measure could, if passed, have little or no material impact on day-to-day operations in Colorado’s criminal justice system, some of its backers are hoping Amendment A will not only pass but will also kickstart broader discussions among citizens and state leaders about mass incarceration and prison labor in the state.

“I think we have to have a larger conversation about criminal justice reform in total,” said state Rep. Joe Salazar, a Democrat who ran and lost against Weiser in a competitive primary. “We need to talk about how prisoners are treated, about how much money we’re spending on the correctional industry, and I think that with the passage of Amendment A, it’s going to trigger even more conversations, and that they’ll be positive ones.”

Emery said he’d welcome those conversations in the future, but that the Abolish Slavery Colorado campaign remains focused on the narrow task of passing Amendment A.

Alex cut his teeth as the Boulder Daily Camera's city hall reporter and, prior to that, as an education reporter at the Loveland Reporter-Herald. He's interested in city issues, governance and homelessness, and he once spent two months investigating the suspicious death of a backyard rooster. Alex is a D.C. native who's lived in Illinois, Chile and now Denver.

2 COMMENTS

  1. […] But in the days leading up to the election, Rubenstein held firm in his position. “With most low-level offenses carrying jail, fines and community service as the only sentencing options, I fear that [the passage of Amendment A] will result in more low-risk offenders filling our jails and would disproportionately incarcerate indigent offenders who lack the ability to pay fines,” he told the Colorado Independent.  […]

  2. So if a person hasn’t the money to pay fines for a petty crime, they would normally be forced to provide a service of work to the community they committed crimes against. I think by labeling that “slavery” instead of acknowledging it as alternative punishment is disingenuous at best, and completely dishonest at worst. if you don’t have the money (because you likely already don’t contribute), rather than imprison someone who committed a small crime we make them do something like clean a highway or feed the homeless! Way to make everyone who thinks this system is acceptable feel guilty for their opinion instead of being honest. While this bill might prohibit private institutions from forcing labor on criminals, This is the worst way to try to achieve that. Make a more specific bill that ACTUALLY targets the issue.

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