The Utah state constitution was ratified in 1895, nearly three decades after slavery was abolished following the Civil War. Yet state lawmakers at the time allowed for one glaring exception to that law — permitting slavery or indentured servitude as punishment for certain crimes.
Now, Democratic Representative Sandra Hollins is proposing a bill next session to get rid of that exception. KUER’s Julia Ritchey spoke with Hollins at her office about the bill.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julia Ritchey: The Utah Constitution was created almost 30 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. So what was going on in the state that paved the way to this? Did you look into the history behind how this came about?
Rep. Sandra Hollins: After the Civil War, many states — and after the 13th Amendment was written — many states started having problems with labor shortages as a result of not having slaves anymore. So, a lot of states decided that they were going to follow the 13th Amendment and place this language in their state constitution. Now what this did was it opened up a loophole to continue slavery in the prison system. It allowed many states, mostly from the South, to implement laws like the black code … or to implement convict leasing which still allow slavery in those states.
JR: When did you become aware of this language, and why has it been sitting on our books for so long?
SH: … In Colorado this past election cycle, I have been watching what they were doing because it was one of the things that they were doing — they were taking it off their books. And then Brittany [Johnson] of Channel 4 News did a story on it. And so when she did the story ... it never dawned on me that Utah would still have this on their books. So immediately after her story was done I texted her and I said, ‘Let's get this off our books.’
JR: As the Legislature’s sole African-American member, do you feel this extra weight when you're representing, especially a more diverse district, to tackle these kinds of issues?
SH: Absolutely, absolutely. You know, I am the first African-American female legislator to the state of Utah, and I represent one of the most diverse districts in the state of Utah. So I know that I have unique challenges and different issues that my district faces, that other districts may not face, and so I embrace that. I embrace being on the front line of being able to fight for change for our diverse community.
JR: You are also opposed to the new [Utah] State Prison, which is going to be in your district. You accuse lawmakers of treating neighborhoods on the westside as “disposable.” Do you see that correlation between the national dialogue going on around prison reform and looking at the state's historical treatment of people of color?
SH: Absolutely. You know, when you sit and you look at history and what has been going on in the criminal justice system ... we all know that sentencing is not — has historically — not been handed out fairly in the United States. And we know that there has been a problem with people of color being overrepresented in the criminal justice system and we know that there is a lot … of social justice issues going on. When I look at it overall at this bill, yeah, this is a part of their fight along those lines.
JR: You told Fox 13 that even though slavery has been abolished, there's different types of slavery that still exist and you want to open up that conversation. What does that conversation look like?
SH: You know that conversation is around what is going on currently. We know that modern day slavery still exists — it still exists in the world. And I think we need to be having that conversation, to bring it down to Utah, and Salt Lake City in particular. We do have a problem with human trafficking. Human trafficking is a form of slavery and we need to be having those conversations and we need to be looking at what can we do. And I think that this is one of the conversations that I'm hoping that this bill is going to allow people to have a conversation on that.