Section 31, Article 4 of the Oregon constitution says:

There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the State, otherwise than as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.

Measure 112 removes the italicized clause, but it adds:

Upon conviction of a crime, an Oregon court or a probation or parole agency may order the convicted person to engage in education, counseling, treatment, community service or other alternatives to incarceration, as part of sentencing for the crime, in accordance with programs that have been in place historically or that may be developed in the future, to provide accountability, reformation, protection of society or rehabilitation.

(emphasis added)

Doesn't this basically mean that convicted criminals can't be required to work, but they can be required to work?

  • I would argue that "being someone's slave" is quite different from "being forced to work some hours for the community"
    – PMF
    Oct 16, 2022 at 16:56
  • Doesn't it says that they are alternatives to incarceration? Are you asking if someone can be sentenced to "X years hard labor"? This site says: Hard labor is mandated physical labor ordered in connection with a prison term imposed as punishment for a crime. Oct 16, 2022 at 16:57
  • @PMF there's definitely a difference, but forced community service is still involuntary servitude, and the "preamble" to the measure (not sure what it's called, it's the section with several paragraphs starting with "whereas" before the actual legal text) says "Whereas in a just society that respects human dignity and the exercise of free will, there must be no exception to an unqualified and absolute prohibition on slavery and involuntary servitude...", but the measure actually replaces the existing exception with a narrower one.
    – Someone
    Oct 16, 2022 at 17:06
  • The "preamble" later says "Whereas because work provides myriad individual and collective benefits, the purpose of this proposed constitutional amendment is not to withdraw legitimate opportunities to work from individuals who have been convicted of a crime," but it seems that these two statements would be better reconciled by allowing those who have been convicted of crimes to work if they choose, but not allowing the state to require that they work.
    – Someone
    Oct 16, 2022 at 17:08
  • 2
    Colorado passed a similar amendment a few years ago. My impression is that it is almost entirely symbolic. The idea is to have a constitutional statement that slavery is never acceptable, not even as punishment for a crime. However, the second clause is basically to guarantee that the amendment has no actual practical effect on the criminal justice system as it currently stands, effectively defining it as "not slavery". Oct 17, 2022 at 1:05

5 Answers 5


The previous constitutional provision, which copies the wording of the 13th Amendment to the US Federal Constitution, would in theory have allowed a converted criminal to be sentenced to lifetime slavery, or to a long period of indentured servitude, although this has not commonly been done. This language has allowed convicted criminals to be sentenced to many years of hard labor in a prion setting, including under circumstances where the convicts are rented out to private employers.

I take it that such practices would be forbidden by the new language, and that only a limited period of "community service" would be allowed, not under prison conditions, and not designed to benefit private employers. It is not clear to me just what the limits of "community service" are, in intensity or duration. But the suggestioinb seems to be that they would be much less intense, in both aspects, than traditional "chain gang" sentences.


There is no requirement to work, although there is an option to work. If you are convicted of an offense, you have the option to go to prison (or pay the fine), and in prison, you would not be required to work. This does not preclude accepting a lesser punishment whereby you must pick up highway trash, for example. You could argue that there is no choice given the alternatives of incarceration vs. picking up trash. If the measure passes, we would have to wait to see if the Oregon Supreme Court holds that alternatives to incarceration are "really" a form of involuntary servitude, but that seems quite unlikely.

A more likely conflict comes if a court specifically mandates community service and precludes fines or incarceration: we would have to wait and see if that ever happens.


As stated elsewhere the original draft of this amendment is similar to the U.S. 13th Amendment which banned slavery except for convict labor which was used heavily in the United States until relatively recently (Think the old Chain Gang days.). The practice of prison labor is still used in the United States to this day, however, the most prisons will pay the working prisoners for their time and effort (No where near the minimum wage. Usually it was enough to get the occasional candy or other treat from the prison commissary).

The distinction as I see between convict slave labor and community service is that in the former, there was little choice and was done while doing prison time. In the latter, it's normally done after prison sentence or instead of altogether. In addition the type of work that is done is ultimately up to the prisoner, so long as it meets the community service definition. This could include cleaning a park, reading to children at the library, working at a soup kitchen, or other matters that generally improve the community as a whole and are generally volunteer jobs that are open to members of the public who have not been convicted of any crime and are so inclined to spend their free time doing such work.


It makes prison labor a choice

Under the old statute, anyone convicted can be forced to work for no payment. That's indentured servitude.

The new statute removes that for all punishments but the community service ones, which is explicitly an alternative to incarceration.

It prescribes a goal of prisons

The new text also dictates that rehabilitation is to be the goal of the penal system.

  • It appears that a court could require community service, without offering a prison sentence as an alternative.
    – Someone
    Oct 17, 2022 at 21:46
  • Yes, but not in addition.
    – Trish
    Oct 17, 2022 at 21:49
  • If someone is sentenced to 40 hours of community service as punishment for a crime, and does not have the option of going to prison instead, isn't that involuntary servitude? (I think that should be a legal sentence, but this law just doesn't quite make sense to me.)
    – Someone
    Oct 17, 2022 at 21:53
  • Community service is served differently than prison sentences. You ought to ask about how community service works. But the gist is: you do your normal life, and in addition you do some hours over several days at a charity or public service doing things. For example, picking litter at a park. However, the punishment can't be in such a way that it puts you out of your job.
    – Trish
    Oct 17, 2022 at 22:07

The second part of the measure seems potentially hazardous, especially when it is fully appreciated as a distinct constitutional directive.

This second clause seems to give the three authorities (courts, parole/probation agencies) total discretion to apply a broad range of creative "alternatives to incarceration" beyond current statutory limits. (Minimum and maximum sentencing in current law will become optional to the court.)

Furthermore, I am reading this as granting the discretion to the authorities, who may be tempted to "order the convicted person" to comply with some alternative program according to their own whimsy, and absent a choice between sentencing prescribed by law or the creative solution.

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