Colorado Rights Blog

Nathan Woodliff-Stanley By: Nathan Woodliff-Stanley 10.11.2016

Take Out Slavery – Vote YES on Amendment T

Did you know that the Colorado Constitution still allows legal slavery, and that Coloradans can do something about it this fall?

Colorado’s language parallels an exception written into the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, banning slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

When a group of faith and community leaders began a campaign last spring to eliminate the exception allowing slavery, many legislators were surprised to learn that, even though Colorado was never a slave state, we still have language allowing slavery — as a punishment for crime.

That archaic federal exception, part of the difficult battle to get the 13th Amendment passed, has largely been ignored. The 13th Amendment has normally been treated and thought of as a total ban on legal slavery. Some states do have a total ban on slavery with no exception, some have no language related to the 13th Amendment at all, and about half the states, including Colorado, have similar language leaving an exception to the ban on slavery.

As Coloradans, we can’t change the federal language, but we can be one of the states that declares it will not allow slavery in any situation by voting Yes on Amendment T. The Colorado legislature voted unanimously, including every Republican and every Democrat in both houses, to place Amendment T on the ballot in November.

A Yes on T vote will remove the exception language in the Colorado Constitution to our state ban on slavery and involuntary servitude, as the 13th Amendment itself should have done from the beginning.

It is fair to ask what Amendment T will accomplish, although it is a statement worth making even if it has no practical effect. States have a variety of language around slavery and involuntary servitude, and all states have similar criminal justice systems with work programs and community service programs, so there is no reason to believe Amendment T would affect those programs. Courts have defined slavery and involuntary servitude narrowly enough that typical work programs or community service would not fall under those definitions.

Technically, however, it would not be unconstitutional for the State of Colorado to sell people into slavery or involuntary servitude as long as it was deemed a punishment for crime—and that would be simply wrong. Even if that has never happened and even if we believe it never would, it shouldn’t even be possible under our Constitution. If any practices of a state actually met the definitions of slavery or involuntary servitude, they probably shouldn’t be allowed in any case. Whatever our criminal justice system may be, it shouldn’t be slavery.

So Amendment T is a genuine protection for the future, and in a time of widespread racial tensions, it is a strong and positive signal of good will today. Words matter. We weren’t around to take part in the abolition of slavery after the Civil War, but Amendment T gives us an opportunity to finish that abolition today, at least for Colorado. Slavery in any circumstance is immoral, and it is not a Colorado value.

The ACLU of Colorado urges you to follow the example of the entire Colorado legislature and vote Yes on Amendment T.



  • Anthony Martinez is 84-years-old and suffering from renal failure, as well as other serious medical conditions including dementia. He is currently incarcerated in the Sterling Correctional Facility, site of one of Colorado’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks with almost 600 active COVID-19 cases. He and his family are understandably terrified that he will catch the virus and die.

    In the midst of this public health crisis, incarcerated people as vulnerable as Anthony, could and should be immediately released to safely live out their remaining years with family.

    Read more about Anthony Martinez and other at-risk incarcerated people. 

  • Ronald Johnson is pre-diabetic, suffers from asthma and high blood pressure, and regularly uses an inhaler to breathe. His age and respiratory ailments put him at risk of serious illness and death if he contracts COVID-19. With over hundreds of active cases in Colorado’s prisons, his family fears he will not make it out alive. His daughter, Amber, says, “In prison, he can’t protect himself and he can’t social distance. My deep fear is that my dad will die in prison. That is an awful, traumatic reality to consider. My chest is tight just thinking about how quickly it spreads and how vulnerable he is.”

    Governor Hickenlooper shortened his sentence following testimony from family, friends and correctional officers advocating for his early release. Yet, he is still eight years away from parole. While he remains in prison, COVID-19 continues to spread. Ronald’s three siblings, four children and four grandchildren are desperate for his release.

    Read more about Ronald Johnson and other at-risk incarcerated people.

  • Tuesday Olson knew her pregnancy was in trouble and tried to access hospital care as soon as possible. But there was a problem: she was in jail. This is her story.
  • It’s time to end the death penalty in Colorado. Family members who lost loved ones to murder speak out against an unjust and broken system.