WASHINGTON — A closely divided Supreme Court on Monday cited "serious constitutional violations" in California's overcrowded prisons and ordered the state to abide by aggressive plans to fix the problem.
In a decision closely watched by other states, the court concluded by 5-4 that the prison overcrowding violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Pointedly, the court rejected California's bid for more time and leeway.
"The violations have persisted for years," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. "They remain uncorrected."
The court agreed that a prisoner-release plan devised by a three-judge panel is necessary to alleviate the overcrowding. The court also upheld the two-year deadline imposed by the panel.
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"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 wrote.
Driving the point home, the court's majority made the highly unusual if not unprecedented move of illustrating the decision with stark black-and-white photographs of a jam-packed room at one state prison and cages at another.
The court cited, as well, particularly vivid examples of what's happened to inmates as a result of the overcrowding.
"A psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had been held in ... a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic," Kennedy recounted in one of several similar examples.
Attorneys for the inmates praised the court's action.
"This landmark decision will not only help prevent prisoners from dying of malpractice and neglect, but it will make the prisons safer for the staff, improve public safety and save the taxpayers billions of dollars," declared Donald Specter, the director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office.
Conservative dissenters, in turn, warned that dire consequences will result, with Justice Antonin Scalia calling the decision a "radical" one that will force the release of a "staggering number" of felons who might start preying again on innocent Californians.
"I fear that today's decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims," Justice Samuel Alito added.
The court's decision fell along conventional ideological lines, with Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas joining the conservative dissent and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan helping Kennedy form the majority.
Reducing overcrowding doesn't necessarily mean that thousands of inmates will be let loose. Alternatives include transferring some to other jurisdictions, diverting nonviolent inmates to jails and reforming parole so that fewer violators are returned to prison.
"I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety," Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement, adding that "full and constitutionally guaranteed funding" now must be secured to solve the prison problem.
Last month, Brown signed a bill that would shift to counties the responsibility for incarcerating many low-risk inmates. Up to 30,000 state prison inmates could be transferred to county jails over three years, under the bill. First, however, state officials must agree on a way to pay for it.
The decision Monday capped a legal battle that began in 1990, when the first of several lawsuits was filed challenging the treatment of mentally ill inmates. A subsequent suit challenged the treatment of patients with other medical conditions; the two cases were combined for purposes of the court's decision.
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.
California's 33 state prisons held about 147,000 inmates at the time of the Supreme Court's oral arguments in November. That was down from a high of some 160,000 previously cited in legal filings. The higher figure amounted to "190 percent of design capacity," officials said.
Last year, the three-judge panel ordered California to reduce its inmate population to 137.5 percent of design capacity within two years. That's the equivalent of about 110,000 inmates.
One hundred and twelve California prison inmates died unnecessarily because of inadequate medical care in 2008 and 2009, analysts found. Acutely ill patients have been held in "cages, supply closets and laundry rooms" because of overcrowding, investigators found. Suicides by California inmates have been double the national average.
Even before the court ruled Monday, California officials began taking steps to cut the overcrowding.
At least 9,000 inmates have been released since fall, still leaving California with the need to find new homes for some 28,000 inmates.
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