The 5-4 decision represents one of the largest prison release orders in U.S. history. The court majority says overcrowding has caused 'suffering and death.' In a sharp dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia warns 'terrible things are sure to happen.'

Inmates sit for dinner at the California State Prison in Lancaster. A federal overseer of the state's prison system has suggested freeing the sickest inmates as a way to cut costs.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ordered California on Monday to release tens of thousands of its prisoners to relieve overcrowding, saying that "needless suffering and death" had resulted from putting too many inmates into facilities that cannot hold them in decent conditions.

It is one of the largest prison release orders in the nation's history, and it sharply split the high court.

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Justices upheld an order from a three-judge panel in California that called for releasing 38,000 to 46,000 prisoners. Since then, the state has transferred about 9,000 state inmates to county jails. As a result, the total prison population is now about 32,000 more than the capacity limit set by the panel.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the majority, said California's prisons had "fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements" because of overcrowding. As many as 200 prisoners may live in gymnasium, he said, and as many as 54 prisoners share a single toilet.

Kennedy insisted that the state had no choice but to release more prisoners. The justices, however, agreed that California officials should be given more time to make the needed reductions.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called the ruling "staggering" and "absurd."

He said the high court had repeatedly overruled the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for ordering the release of individual prisoners. Now, he said, the majority were ordering the release of "46,000 happy-go-lucky felons." He added that "terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order." Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with him.

In a separate dissent, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the ruling conflicted with a federal law intended to limit the power of federal judges to order a release of prisoners.

State officials and lawyers for inmates differ over just how many prisoners will have to be released. In recent figures, the state said it had about 142,000 inmates behind bars, and the judges calculated the prison population would need to be reduced to about 110,000 to comply with constitutional standards.

Kennedy said the judges in California overseeing the prison-release order should "accord the state considerable latitude to find mechanisms and make plans" that are "consistent with the public safety."

The American Civil Liberties Union said the court had "done the right thing" by addressing the "egregious and extreme overcrowding in California's prisons."

David Fathi, director of the ACLU national prison project, said "reducing the number of people in prison not only would save the state taxpayers half a billion annually, it would lead to the implementation of truly rehabilitative programs that lower recidivism rates and create safer communities."

Meanwhile, the court took no action on another California case in which a conservative group is challenging the state's policy of granting in-state tuition at its colleges and universities to students who are illegal immigrants and have graduated from its high schools.

The justices said they would consider the appeal in a later private conference.

For years the medical and mental health care provided by California's prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners' basic health needs," Kennedy said, noting that as many as 200 prisoners may live in a gym and as many as 54 prisoners share a single toilet. "Efforts to remedy the (medical and mental health) violation have been frustrated by severe overcrowding in California's prison system."

Justice Antonin Scalia took the unusual step of reading part of his dissent from the bench. He said the ruling would free thousands of convicted felons and it amounted to "perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history." He called the result of the order, "outrageous."

The U.S. State of California like many other states is reeling from the issues of overcrowded prisons and low funding to run the overpopulated jails.

As part of a reduction of Los Angeles' prison population ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court last week, other counties are likely to be asked to accept thousands of new inmates. Los Angeles, where one-third of the state's prisoners originate, could have to take up to 10,000 inmates.

Los Angeles' largest jail has a long history of overcrowding, unsanitary and unsafe conditions, and inadequate medical care for inmates. Many of the same criminal justice advocates who supported the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court ruling are now warning that Los Angeles and other local jurisdictions are unprepared to deal with the aftermath of this landmark legal victory. New America Media


The Supreme Court ruling held that overcrowding in California's 33 prisons has caused conditions that amount to “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The decision, which upheld a 2009 ruling by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, came in two consolidated class-action lawsuits dating back to 1990 that challenged the prison system's treatment of patients with mental illness and other medical conditions.

In response to the 2009 ruling, the state had already begun reducing its prison population (from nearly 162,500 in 2006 to around143,400 this past May), in part by sending 10,000 inmates out of state. But if the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) hopes to meet the court ordered goal -- prison population not to exceed 137.5 percent of capacity -- it must cut another 33,630 prisoners over the next two years.

In 2009, 47,000 state prison inmates were serving terms of 90 days or less.

But even with jails running at full capacity, counties still won't be able to accommodate all 30,000-plus inmates being cut from the state prison system. In Kern County, for instance, which sends approximately 4,600 inmates to state prisons a year, jails are currently operating at 87.6 percent capacity. But pushing capacity to 100 percent would only add 334 beds.

Other county jail systems are already over capacity, including San Diego (at 103.6 percent), the second-largest supplier of inmates to state prisons.

In order to house inmates locally, more jails will have to be built.

In 2009, 47,000 state prison inmates were serving terms of 90 days or less. New America Media

Currently, California has 9,816 inmates in out-of-state contract beds and 4,919 in in-state contract beds. Kalwnews

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in California's prison system, which houses just over 140,000 inmates but was built to accommodate only 80,000, constitutes cruel and unusual treatment and violates the Eighth Amendment. Huffington Post

The contentious ruling sparked investigations into the abysmal conditions of the state's 30 male prisons, including allegations of race-based discrimination. Huffington Post

But the reports and the Supreme Court ruling largely ignored the state's three female facilities, where former inmates and prison rights advocates say that 12,000 women live in grossly overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. These women must navigate a host of dangers, including insufficient medical care, sexual abuse by guards and increasing levels of violence between inmates. Huffington Post

Nearly 3,700 women live at Central California Women's Facility, putting it at more than 180 percent capacity. Eight women pack into cells built for four, sharing one bathroom and shower and each receiving a single locker, one-cubic-foot large, for their possessions. The rooms rarely have adequate ventilation and temperatures soar during the summer months. As in the men's prisons, the gymnasium has been converted into housing. Huffington Post


Eighteen states -- including Texas, Alaska and South Carolina -- explicitly supported California's bid for more leeway in reducing prison overcrowding. These states worry that they, too, might face court orders to release inmates. Miamiherald.com

The California dispute is the first high court case that reviewed a prisoner release order under a 1996 federal law that made it much harder for inmates to challenge prison conditions. newser.com

The case revolves around inadequate mental and physical health care in a state prison system that in 2009 averaged nearly a death a week that might have been prevented or delayed with better medical care. newser.com

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had been adamant about keeping prisoners in for their entire sentence. Abclocal.go.com

This is while the Drug Policy Alliance said California can easily release 40,000 non-violent offenders, arguing that many don't belong in prison because their crime was simple possession. Abclocal.go.com

The American Civil Liberties Union, reports the Times, praised the decision:

David Fathi, director of the ACLU national prison project, said "reducing the number of people in prison not only would save the state taxpayers half a billion annually, it would lead to the implementation of truly rehabilitative programs that lower recidivism rates and create safer communities."


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