- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2011

The 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 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, imposed by a federal three-judge panel in California, mandates a prison population of no more than 110,000 inmates, still far above the 80,000 the system was designed to hold.

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

“The violations have persisted for years. They remain uncorrected,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy 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 the lower-court order, which was written by three appointees of former 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 a “staggering number” of convicted felons. Justice Clarence Thomas joined the Scalia opinion, while Justice Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. wrote a separate dissent for himself and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Michael Bien, one of the attorneys 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.

Eighteen other states joined California in urging the justices to reject the population order as overreaching. They argued that it poses a threat to public safety. State attorneys general said they could face similar legal challenges.

Justice Alito said he, too, feared that the decision, “like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong. In a few years, we will see.”

Justice Kennedy acknowledged the concern, but said the judges gave state officials flexibility in complying with the court order, including offering “early release only to those prisoners who pose the least risk of reoffending.”

California Gov. Jerry Brown said he “will take all steps necessary to protect public safety.”

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