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Jennifer Rae Taylor

Jennifer Rae Taylor, Constitutionally Unprotected: Prison Slavery, Felon Disenfranchisement, and the Criminal Exception to Citizenship Rights , 47 Gonzaga Law Review 365-392 (2011-2012) (189 Footnotes)

 

At first glance, the Ninth Circuit's recent decisions in Farrakhan v. Gregoire, affirming that the criminally convicted may be legally deprived of the right to vote, and Serra v. Lappin, concluding that American prisoners may be forced to work for no pay, seem inconsistent with the American values and freedoms so often thought to be codified in this nation's Constitution. In fact, as this article asserts, these outcomes are made possible by historical flaws inherent in that very document, introduced during a period when racial subjugation and exploitation were values many sought to protect. Understanding this history is vital to explaining--and correcting--these contemporary judicial outcomes.

Through the mid-nineteenth century, the vast majority of blacks in America were slaves, human chattel imported from Africa beginning before the United States existed. Ironically, at the time the Declaration of Independence was written--which, of course, declared all men to be created equal and inspired the American colonies to separate themselves from their oppressive English rulers--African slaves in the territory were bought and sold like property.

More than eighty years later, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney's infamous 1857 opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford gave judicial endorsement to what had long been practical reality: black people possessed no rights which the white man was bound to respect. They were not, and could not be, national citizens entitled to the rights and recognition accorded the title.

The Reconstruction period that followed President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War in 1865 seemed to mark a new era. Congressional advocates of emancipation and further reform of the South expressed a sense of legislative duty; to these representatives, the North that had freed the slaves and preserved the Union had a responsibility to ensure blacks' legal protection through permanent, federally enforced constitutional action. Within five years of the war's end, and less than fifteen years after Taney's pronouncement in Dred Scott, constitutional amendments were ratified to abolish slavery, extend citizenship to all native-born blacks and voting rights to black men over the age of twenty-one, and explicitly outlaw racially discriminatory voting laws.

However, this grant of freedom and rights was not without qualification. The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. . .. Similarly, the Fourteenth Amendment declared that no state could abridge the voting rights of male citizens over age twenty-one, except [as punishment] for participation in rebellion, or other crime . . . . Later hailed as proud historical achievements that finally blanketed all the nation's citizens in freedom and democracy, these constitutional amendments actually left--and still leave--an entire category of citizens unprotected and vulnerable.

The consequences of this incomplete grant of rights became apparent soon after the end of Reconstruction. Southern state governments fully regained control of their courts and legislatures when federal troops pulled out of the South less than fifteen years after the war's end. The Constitution's new promise of black political and legal equality was an obstacle to the reinstitution of the region's traditional power structure: white supremacy. No longer able to rely on the institution of slavery to maintain the racial hierarchy, and faced with federal laws limiting preferred alternatives, creative laws were devised to ensure whites' social, political, and economic dominance.

In this context, the constitutionally codified civil rights exception for the criminally convicted became an instruction on how to legally deprive blacks of their freedom and political rights for centuries to come. Modern prison slavery and felon disenfranchisement are lingering remnants of post-Civil War laws that deliberately manipulated the criminal law for the purpose of relegating blacks to a constitutionally permissible state of second-class citizenship.

Born of Southern efforts to reestablish white supremacy by depriving black Americans of their civil rights under the guise of criminal justice, these laws, and the criminal justice system as a whole, continue to disproportionately impact black people and other minority groups. These consequences illustrate the danger inherent in exempting--as the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments do--whole categories of individuals from the constitutional protections most needed by marginalized minorities. The resulting policies expose the ease with which these exceptions have been, and continue to be, manipulated to undermine the purported national goals of freedom, equality, and democracy.

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Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law

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