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 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 the panel imposed.
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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.
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," said Donald Specter, the director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office.
Conservative dissenters 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.
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas joined the conservative dissent, and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan sided with Kennedy.
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," California Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement.
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.