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The movement to end mass incarceration has exposed many injustices. It has highlighted long-standing practices of sending innocent people to prison. Movie stars, actors, and entertainers have given attention to the many innocent people who have been put in prison and on death row. Movies and documentaries have exposed America’s racial disparities in the criminal justice system. 

But in order to garner attention and support, there is always one common condition: you must always be totally innocent, and you can’t have a prior criminal record. While this may be well-meaning, it ignores an ugly reality: most of those in America’s prisons were rightly convicted, but wrongly sentenced.

During the late 1980’s, as crack hit every Black community with a viciousness we had never seen before or since, laws were passed that affected those communities that would forever change the way law enforcement viewed them and treated them. It also changed how they viewed and treated themselves. 

The process of criminalizing a people and their community required a different response to combat the onslaught of laws and regulations that would relegate millions of Black boys and men to America’s prisons. But the approach was the same as it has always been: many Black leaders and those organizations who were willing to lend any assistance took a civil rights approach that centered on the wrongly convicted. 

This approach helped hundreds, maybe thousands, but we lost millions to a war on drugs that didn’t care if you were innocent or guilty. This war didn’t involve dogs and water hoses. This new war involved guns, tanks and new military-style tactics. 

Black and urban neighborhoods became war zones for paramilitary raids executed by SWAT teams. The Black community now faced two wars: a war within the community because of the violence and destruction of crack and a war waged from the outside by law enforcement. The danger and viciousness that crack brought couldn’t effectively be dealt with in a civil rights approach. It was like taking a knife to a gunfight. 

Both innocent and guilty were ushered into America’s prisons like the world had never seen. Society’s infatuation with the totally innocent allowed us to forget the poor and disadvantaged who had often committed a crime, but were poorly represented and manipulated into accepting 20 years for a crime that really only carried five years. District attorneys and judges built careers off of what they knew were unfair, unjust and disproportionate sentences. And all of this would have an unforeseen, but dangerous consequence.

Early on it was mostly men who were the target and suffered the hardest. But soon, Black women would also be caught up in this vicious cycle. Increasingly, more women were incarcerated, and this remains a blow we still haven’t recovered from. 

The approach to handling this new situation was similar as it had been with the men: in order for a woman to get any meaningful help or assistance, she would have to be innocent with no prior criminal record. Never mind the fact that many women in prison were victims of sexual and physical violence. Many had been sexually abused as young girls and battered and bruised as women. Thousands of women and girls were pushed through a criminal justice system that never considered the trauma and abuse they suffered. They were abandoned by communities, leaders and organizations who didn’t see them as victims but as participants. 

Many were poorly represented and also manipulated into accepting a disproportionate sentence. Countless numbers of them had been tricked or threatened by men who had abused them. 

We must understand that disproportionate sentencing is a leading cause of mass incarceration, not the wrongly convicted. While I never wish for any human being to be wrongly or unjustly put in prison, I equally wish and hope that those sentenced to a prison term, be given sentences proportionate to the offense they were convicted of.

Some of the people in prison do have a prior arrest or conviction before committing their current offense. Much of that came from a time when “tough on crime” policies and laws criminalized acts and behavior without regard to the conditions that many people came from. It came from a punitive, draconian system that still hasn’t fully acknowledged its role in creating broken souls. This system is responsible for disproportionately sentencing Black and poor men and women.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact checked.