By Mark Sherman
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday endorsed a court order requiring California to cut its prison population by tens of thousands of inmates to improve health care for those who remain behind bars.
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 are more than 142,000 inmates in the state's 33 adult prisons, meaning roughly 32,000 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.
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.
The case revolves around inadequate mental and physical health care in a state prison system that in 2009 averaged nearly a death a week that might have been prevented or delayed with better medical care.
The facilities were designed to hold about 80,000 inmates.
The state has protested a court order to cut the population cut to around 110,000 inmates within two years, but also has taken steps to meet, if not exceed, that target.
Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that would reduce the prison population by about 40,000 inmates by transferring many low-level offenders to county jurisdiction. The state legislature has yet to authorize any money for the transfer.
Kennedy said the state could ask for the court order to be modified to allow for up to three additional years to reach the 110,000-inmate target.
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