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Supreme Court Orders California to Slash Prison Population

Comstock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A bitterly divided Supreme Court on Monday upheld a lower court ruling that California must reduce its prison population by at least 30,000 to alleviate overcrowding.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by the four liberal members of the court, acknowledged that the order is "unprecedented" in its "sweep and extent" but said that the crowded conditions amounted to violations of prisoners' constitutional rights against cruel and unusual treatment and must be remedied.

Kennedy noted that at the time of the court order, California's correctional facilities held 156,000 inmates, nearly double the number they were designed to hold.

"The medical and mental health care provided by California's prison falls below the standard of decency," Kennedy wrote. "This extensive and ongoing constitutional violation requires a remedy, and a remedy will not be achieved without a reduction in overcrowding."

Kennedy said the order gives the State of California the power to choose how to reduce its prison population, but said the progress should be monitored by the three-judge panel that issued the original order.

"Absent compliance through new construction, out-of-state transfers or other means...the state will be required to release some number of prisoners before their full sentences have been served," he said.

The majority acknowledged that if the state is able to "reveal targeted and effective remedies" that will end the constitutional violations it may not have to significantly decrease the general prison population.

Kennedy said that the state could ask for an extension of the original two-year deadline to five years, but that the state should begin to devise a system to select prisoners "least likely to jeopardize public safety."

The controversy around California's overcrowded prisons arose in 2009 when a panel of three federal judges ruled that conditions violated prisoners' constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. The panel based its decision on the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) passed by Congress in 1996, which allows federal courts, in certain circumstances, or order caps on prison populations.

California appealed the decision to the Supreme Court arguing that the three-judge panel had no jurisdiction to rule on the issue and that it didn't give California a reasonable amount of time to comply with previous court orders directed at remedying the problem.

Carter G. Phillips, an attorney representing California, called the order "extraordinary and unprecedented" and said that it would force the state to release thousands of prisoners. He said that the state was making progress in improving prison conditions on its own and that the federal court should not interfere with the state's progress.

The case stems from two separate lawsuits that had been winding their way through California courts for years, challenging the health care available in the prison system. 

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