WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Monday ordered California to release tens of thousands of inmates or take other steps to ease overcrowding in its prisons to prevent "needless suffering and death."
By a 5-4 vote, the high court told the nation's largest state prison system to sharply cut its inmate population in stages over two years in one of the biggest prison release orders in U.S. history.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said for the court majority that the medical and mental health care provided by California's prisons had fallen below the standard of decency required by the Constitution.
Kennedy cited suicidal inmates being held for prolonged periods in telephone booth-sized cages, backlogs of up to 700 prisoners waiting to see a doctor for care and as many as 54 inmates sharing a single toilet.
He said drastic action was needed to prevent "needless suffering and death."
California's 33 adult prisons were designed to hold about 80,000 inmates and now have about 145,000.
In 2009 the state was ordered to reduce the prison population by 46,000 inmates to get down to what judges decided would be a reasonable level. It was the largest prisoner release order ever from a federal court.
Because of prison population reductions while the case has been on appeal, Kennedy calculated the state may have to release 37,000 more inmates or take other measures, such as putting low-risk offenders into community-based programs and building more prisons.
Improving conditions in California's prisons has become a major legal, political and financial issue in view of the worsening budget crisis in the nation's most populous state.
The ruling involved two class-action lawsuits filed in 1990 and 2001 by inmates who challenged the inadequate medical and mental health care conditions in the state's prison system.
Kennedy, a moderate conservative who was joined by the court's four liberals, said the reductions can be carried out without jeopardizing public safety.
One of the dissenting justices, Samuel Alito, wrote: "I fear that today's decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims."
California had argued that forcing it to release inmates would increase murders and crime.
"As we work to carry out the court's ruling, I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety," California Governor Jerry Brown said in a statement.
The state has been cutting the prison population for years and needs to cut nearly 34,000 more to hit the court-mandated goals. Officials hope they can meet it chiefly by transferring prisoners to local jails.
"Our goal is to not release inmates at all," state prisons chief Matthew Cate told reporters. But he said, "I don't think we can guarantee anything at this point."
Donald Specter, an attorney for the inmates, hailed the ruling. "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," he said.
The dramatic rise in California's prison population had been fueled by tough sentencing laws adopted during the 1990s.
The United States has more than 2 million people in state and local prisons. It has long had the highest incarceration rate in the world.
The Supreme Court case is Brown v. Plata, No. 09-1233.
Additional reporting by Peter Henderson in San Francisco; Editing by Bill Trott and Christopher Wilson