WASHINGTON — 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 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. The order mandates a prison population of no more than 110,000 inmates, still far above the system's designed capacity.
There were more than 143,000 inmates in the state's 33 adult prisons as of May 11, meaning roughly 33,000 inmates will need to be transferred to other jurisdictions or released.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, a California native, wrote the majority opinion, in which he included photos of severe overcrowding. The court's four Democratic appointees joined with Kennedy.
"The violations have persisted for years. They remain uncorrected," Kennedy said. The lawsuit challenging the provision of mental health care was filed in 1990.
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."
Scalia, reading his dissent aloud Monday, said it would require the release of "the staggering number of 46,000 convicted felons."
Scalia's number, cited in legal filings, comes from a period in which the prison population was even higher.
Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia's opinion, while Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate dissent for himself and Chief Justice John Roberts.
Michael Bien, one of the lawyers representing inmates in the case, said, "The Supreme Court upheld an extraordinary remedy because conditions were so terrible."