- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday narrowly endorsed reducing California’s cramped prison population by more than 30,000 inmates to fix sometimes deadly problems in medical care, ruling that federal judges retain enormous power to oversee troubled state prisons.

The court said in a 5-4 decision that the reduction is “required by the Constitution” to correct longstanding violations of inmates’ rights to adequate care for their mental and physical health. In 2009, the state’s prisons averaged nearly a death a week that might have been prevented or delayed with better medical care.

The order mandates a prison population of no more than 110,000 inmates, still far above the 80,000 the system was designed to hold.

More than 143,000 inmates were in California’s 33 adult prisons as of May 11, so roughly 33,000 inmates will need to be transferred to other jurisdictions or released.

“The violations have persisted for years. They remain uncorrected,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a California native, wrote for the court. The lawsuit challenging the adequacy of mental health care was filed in 1990.

To emphasize the conditions, Justice Kennedy took the unusual step of including photos of overcrowding, including cages where mentally ill inmates were held while they awaited a bed.

The court’s four Democratic appointees joined with Justice Kennedy in upholding a court order issued by three federal judges in California, all appointees of President Jimmy Carter.

Justice Antonin Scalia said in dissent that the court order is “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history” and that it did not comply with the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a 15-year-old law intended to limit the discretion of judges in lawsuits over prison conditions.

Justice Scalia, reading his dissent aloud Monday, said it would require the release of “the staggering number of 46,000 convicted felons.”

Justice Scalia’s number, cited in legal filings, comes from a period in which the prison population was even higher.

Justice Clarence Thomas joined Justice Scalia’s opinion, while Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote a separate dissent for himself and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Michael Bien, one of the lawyers representing inmates in the case, said, “The Supreme Court upheld an extraordinary remedy because conditions were so terrible.”

The ruling comes amid efforts in many states, accelerated by budget gaps, to send fewer people to prison in the first place. Proposals vary by state but include ways to reduce sentences for lower-level offenders, direct some offenders to alternative sentencing programs and give judges more discretion in sentencing.

“There’s a growing consensus that there are better ways to run criminal justice systems,” said Michael Mushlin, an expert on prisoners’ rights at Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y.

California did not immediately comment on the ruling.

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