In September 2000, Guy Frank was caught stealing two shirts from a Saks Fifth Avenue in New Orleans.

The stolen clothing was almost immediately returned to the department store, but the consequences of his crime — then considered a felony in Louisiana — would last him far longer: Frank ended up serving a sentence of more than two decades. Last week, the 67-year-old was finally released.

His sentence is another result of Louisiana’s habitual offender laws, which allow prosecutors to seek harsher sentences for lesser crimes if a defendant has previous convictions. These rules, sometimes known as “three-strikes” laws, have drawn heavy scrutiny for driving mass incarceration and exacerbating racial inequities in the most incarcerated state in the country.

“His case shows how poor Black people are disproportionately affected by these extreme sentences,” the Innocence Project New Orleans, which represented Frank, wrote in a statement. “It is hard to imagine a White person with resources receiving this sentence for this crime.”

Some officials, including Bernette Johnson, the former chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, have argued that the state’s habitual offender laws can be traced back directly to measures meant to keep Black people in poverty.

In a dissenting decision last summer, she described how Southern states introduced extreme sentences for petty theft, such as stealing cattle and swine, in the years following Reconstruction.

These measures, known as “Pig Laws,” criminalized poor African Americans recently freed from slavery and allowed states to sentence people to forced labor. Starting in the 1870s, they caused the Black prison population in the Deep South to explode, Johnson argued.

Although some provisions were wiped away due to major criminal justice legislation in 2017, drastic racial inequities remain. Black people make up about one-third of Louisiana’s population, but they account for nearly three-quarters of all state prisoners with life sentences.

A 2002 state court decision noted Frank had been arrested 36 times, starting in 1975, and was convicted several times for theft and for possession of cocaine, serving a three-year sentence in the 1990s. It is unclear on what charges he was arrested in that case, although the Innocence Project New Orleans noted he “had never done more than steal in small amounts.”

But by the time he stole the shirts from Saks, Frank — a waiter who was then reportedly struggling with addiction — had already been convicted of at least three felonies.

A trial court in October 2000 denied his motion to suppress the evidence in the theft case, and Frank withdrew his initial not guilty plea before entering a guilty plea. That led to his fourth felony offense, according to the 2002 decision, which meant the same court could then sentence him to 23 years in prison.

“He received this egregious sentence despite the fact that he was never a threat to anyone,” the Innocence Project New Orleans said in a statement. (According to WDSU, the felony theft count on which he was convicted would now be considered a misdemeanor after the law was amended in 2010.)

After identifying Frank’s case, the nonprofit said it advocated to the office of Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Rogers Williams, a former city councilman who was first elected last fall as a “progressive prosecutor.” Williams appears to have cut off the last three years of Frank’s term. His office did not immediately respond to a message from The Washington Post early on Monday.

During his time locked up, Frank’s mother, wife, son and two brothers all died, according to a GoFundMe meant to raise money for his post-release expenses.

He hopes to become an assistant deacon, the page said, “helping and advising others who are struggling.”