Statement on ACA 3

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Slavery was an evil that will forever be a stain on the history of our great country.

We eliminated it through the Civil War and the adoption of the 13th Amendment.

Involuntary servitude – though lesser known – also had a shameful past.

After the emancipation, southern states sent many blacks to prison on trumped up charges, then “leased” them to farms and factories where they were forced to work without pay.

It was slavery by another name.

But ACA 3 is not about slavery. Slavery is banned in California by the state Constitution.

ACA 3 is not even about involuntary servitude – at least of the kind that was practiced 150 years ago.

The question this measure raises is whether or not California should require felons in state or local jails prisons to work.

That’s certainly a question worthy of debate.

Some say we should pay inmates more than the token few cents an hour that they earn today. Others suggest that their working conditions are not always what they should be.

But those issues can be addressed without a constitutional amendment.

What ACA 3 could do is end all required work immediately, and tie the Legislature’s hands forever more.

Banning the work requirement in our prisons and jails would undermine our rehabilitation programs, make prisons more difficult to manage safely, and -- according to the Department of Finance -- add more than a billion dollars a year to the cost of running the prison system.

It could also cut into the restitution that inmates pay to help victims cope with the effects of the crimes committed against them – if prisoners simply decide not to work.

And as those problems arise – and surely they will – every attempt to address them by the Legislature or the prison system will be met with litigation.

Inmates will sue the state claiming their wages are too low, their hours are too high, or that it is unconstitutional to tie good time credits and early release to their willingness to work.

These are policy issues best suited to discussion and deliberation on this floor, not the kind of fundamental question that should be punted to the courts.

A few weeks ago the Senate passed a bill directing the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to develop a plan for raising the wages for inmate work.  That bill passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote of 36-2. That is exactly the way we should be approaching this issue.

I have asked our Legislative Counsel’s office whether ACA 3 would ban all work requirements in our prison system. They said that question, if ACA 3 were passed in its current form, would likely be decided by the courts.

I then asked them what we could do to eliminate that ambiguity and maintain our authority to make decisions about the prison system.

The counsel gave me a simple amendment that they said would accomplish these goals:

SEC. 6. (a) Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited.

(b) As used in the section, “involuntary servitude” means labor performed against a person’s will for the benefit of another and under coercion. “Involuntary servitude” does not include any rehabilitative activity required of an incarcerated person including education, vocational training, or behavioral or substance abuse counseling, or any work tasks required of an incarcerated person that generally benefit the residents of the facility in which the person is incarcerated, such as cooking, cleaning, grounds keeping, and laundry.

Let’s adopt that amendment and then get back to work on the difficult challenge of making sure our prisons are run humanely, efficiently and in a way that leads to the rehabilitation of as many felons as possible.