On this day: April 18th

by Russell Allen April 18, 2023

On this day (April 18th) in 1792, it was voted 26-16 to enshrine slavery into the Bluegrass State’s constitution. To this day, Article 25 of the Kentucky Constitution states: 

“Slavery and involuntary servitude in this State are forbidden, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Yes, that is correct; slavery is still on the books in the Commonwealth. Like the modern-day death penalty arising from the history of lynchings, our prison system has adopted and reshaped many of the central tenants of another dark part of our history: chattel slavery.

Words hold incredible power. Kentucky wasn't the only state to utilize this language in its constitution. Still, We can trace the adaptation of this language to the 13th Amendment to America’s constitution. This amendment led to the rise of many repressive laws in the South targeting Black Americans. Those laws would eventually mature into Jim Crow, which now attempted to bring the DNA of our original sin into the present time. 

Many proponents of keeping the death penalty in the Bluegrass argue that we need to have a punishment reserved for the worst crimes committed among us. However, since the incarceration spike of the 70s, Kentucky has seen an over 700% increase in incarceration; that spike means that our incarceration rate outpaces many European nations as well as the United States average. During this record period of imprisonment,  we have only carried out three executions, two of which are considered voluntary.

Drilling down on the nature of the crimes, you will see tragedies, but not unique ones. The accused's crimes have been perpetrated in our Commonwealth since these executions and will continue to be committed until we address the root causes. That is when the arbitrary nature of the death penalty is laid bare. How do we determine who is the worst among us? Who gets to make that decision? What can we do to stay away from these situations? We firmly believe that a single execution is one too many, and while we have exceeded that in our Commonwealth, we still hold thanks that the number of executions is low and our system dormant with no new death sentences since 2014. We want to keep it that way. 

Today’s history allows us to reflect on our systems and recommit ourselves to taking action to abolish the death penalty in Kentucky! Will you join us?


Sources: “Earliest Anti-Slavery Efforts in Kentucky [David Rice],” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed April 18, 2023, https://nkaa.uky.edu/nkaa/items/show/3070.