The California Senate on Thursday rejected a proposal to ban involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration warned it could cost taxpayers billions of dollars by forcing the state to pay inmates who work while in prison a $15-per-hour minimum wage.
California’s constitution bans both slavery and involuntary servitude — forcing someone to provide labor against their will — but there is an exception for the punishment of a crime. Some state lawmakers proposed an amendment to remove that exception, an amendment that must first be approved by voters.
But the state Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, on Thursday failed to put the amendment on the ballot this fall. They could try again next week. But if it doesn’t pass by June 30, it won’t be on the ballot this year.
California is one of many states that allows involuntary servitude for the punishment of a crime. For decades, the state used that exception to make money from its prison population by leasing inmates — mostly Black men — to private companies for work.
That “convict lease” system doesn’t exist anymore. But California prison inmates are required to either work or participate in education or rehabilitative programs. Inmate jobs — which include things like clerks, painters and carpenters — pay salaries that range from a low of 8 cents per hour to 37 cents per hour.
The Newsom administration warned the amendment could require the state to pay prison inmates the minimum wage, which in California is $15 per hour for companies with 26 or more employees. That could cost taxpayers $1.5 billion per year.
Many Democrats did not vote for the bill because they were worried about how it would impact the prison system.
“The question this measure raises is whether or not Californians should require felons in state prison to work,” Democratic state Sen. Steve Glazer said. “Banning the work requirement in our prisons would undermine our rehabilitation programs (and) make prison more difficult to manage safely.”
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