In San Francisco last week, a federal court was hearing final arguments in the prison overcrowding lawsuit that led Monday to an unprecedented decision to reduce the nation’s largest prison system by one-third. Just a few blocks away, a state appellate court was affirming a life sentence for Ali Foroutan, convicted of possession of 0.03 gram of methamphetamine.
Critics of California’s justice system say Mr. Foroutan’s sentence under the “three-strikes law,” which mandates 25 years to life in prison for three-time felons, is the kind of punishment that has made the state’s prisons the most overcrowded in the nation.
Federal judges tentatively ruled Monday that packed facilities were the chief impediment to adequate health care in prisons — a system so flawed it was tantamount to a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Monday’s ruling signaled the court’s intention to cap the number of prisoners at about 101,000, a reduction of 55,000. It came after more than a decade of federal court orders from exasperated judges who demanded that the state improve its facilities and personnel, after the appointment of the most powerful federal receivership since the days of forced racial integration in the South, and after the death of scores of prisoners who committed suicide or died of preventable illnesses.The judges encouraged the state to negotiate with inmates’ lawyers to cut the prison population from 156,000, which is about double the system’s capacity, within three years. If the state refuses to negotiate such a plan, the judges could order specific actions, including shortened prison sentences, diversion of nonviolent felons to county programs, and parole reforms that would cut down recidivism.