Slavery in Utah’s Constitution explained

Local News

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – ABC4 News broke the story that a form of slavery still exists in Utah’s Constitution. We followed up with a professor of law to get some clarity on the issue.

Article I, Section 21 of the Utah Constitution reads that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within this State.”

But what does the amendment mean?

Does it mean slavery is still legal in Utah?

Paul Cassell, a Professor of Law at the University of Utah told ABC4 News what he believes the article means and who he thinks is affected by it.

“I think it’s pretty clear that this is a provision confined to prison situations. Certainly, no one is going to be able to have a slave outside of prison walls,” he told ABC4’s Brittany Johnson.

When we first filed this report, we spoke with Jeanetta Williams, President of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch. Williams said the amendment needs to be “reworded immediately” and “we should not be referring to convicted felons as slaves.” 

Professor Cassell agrees.

“I don’t think it’s fair to refer to prisoners as slaves. We have a sorry history of slavery in this country and that’s African-Americans who were taken into a condition of slavery having done nothing wrong. To say that a prisoner who is duly confined is also a slave is I think to conflate, two very different things.”

Utah’s Constitution was written in 1895. Cassell said the language of the amendment is outdated and punishments that were permitted moral or ethical more than 100 years ago, are no longer acceptable today.

“It’s my sense that prison industry programs are no longer involuntary and that prisoners elect to opt into those programs because they provide an opportunity to learn a trade or a skill. And so the situations where we’re using involuntary servitude have probably disappeared,” Cassell explained. 

Now that ABC4’s report has brought this issue to light, Cassell says it’s time to at least have the conversation as to what should be done next.

“I think until there’s some particular concrete situation where litigation arises over these particular provision. It may be premature to do something about it. But it is an interesting question about whether it sends the wrong message to continue to have, what appears to be, outdated language still existing in our Utah Constitution.”

To change Utah’s Constitution, you have to go through a very elaborate process. Two-thirds of both houses of our legislature have to agree on it. If that happens, it goes to a ballot for Utah voters to decide. 

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Glen Mills

Chief Political Correspondent

For this Beetdigger and Ute it’s an honor to be doing what he loves in his home state! Glen is an award-winning journalist, who joined the ABC4 News team in June 2013. You can catch him anchoring ABC4 News at 5 and 6, Monday through Friday. He also serves as our Senior Political Correspondent, keeping you up to date on issues that impact your life at the city, state and national level. His political reports run throughout the week, and he hosts Inside Utah Politics, Sunday mornings at 8. The Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has recognized Glen as the best government and military television reporter in the state. Before returning home to Utah, he spent 11 1/2 years developing his journalism skills in other states. He held various on-air and management positions at KPVI in Pocatello, Idaho, WGBA in Green Bay, Wisconsin and KKCO in Grand Junction, Colorado during that time. Read More...