In a move that one justice called "the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history," the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ordered California to cut its prison population by more than 33,000 inmates.
It is a landmark decision in a decades-long legal battle over conditions inside California prisons, and the immediate response from some quarters warned of an impending public safety crisis.
"If that doesn't have a negative impact on the safety of the people of California, I don't know what does," said U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River. "This is not releasing the Vienna Boys Choir."
But the reality is that the court's opinion has no immediate effect on how many inmates the state can keep in custody.
"This is not a sudden court order requiring the prison doors to fly open," said Allen Hopper, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Instead, the high court's opinion gives the state at least two years to reduce its current population of 143,435 inmates to 109,805.
State officials hope most of those reductions will come through Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal to remove tens of thousands of nonviolent inmates and parole offenders from prisons and place them in county jails.
The court cited that proposal as a sign "that the prison population can be reduced in a manner calculated to avoid an undue negative effect on public safety."
Monday's ruling described almost medieval conditions inside California's 33 adult prisons and affirmed a three-judge federal panel's decision two years ago that inmate populations need to be reduced to 137.5 percent of capacity.
The state's prison capacity is designed for 80,000 inmates, and for many years the system housed more than twice that many. The population now is about 180 percent of capacity.
The Supreme Court also suggested the state could seek an extension from the three-judge panel to get as many as five years to come into compliance.
The state has been under threat of court-ordered reductions for nearly two decades over cases that claim overcrowding has resulted in medical care and mental health services so woeful they are unconstitutional.
"The violations have persisted for years," the high court said in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. "They remain uncorrected."
Justices sharply split
The court majority cited stark instances of overcrowding: 54 inmates sharing a single toilet, suicidal inmates being held for long periods in "telephone booth-sized cages without toilets," up to 50 ill inmates being held without treatment for five hours in a 12-by-20 foot cage.
"After one prisoner was assaulted in a crowded gymnasium, prison staff did not even learn of the injury until the prisoner had been dead for several hours," Kennedy wrote.
The court took the unusual step of including photographs of crowded prison conditions with the majority opinion, but it was clear the justices were sharply divided in their views.
Justice Antonin Scalia said in a dissenting opinion that the majority decision was "radical" and that "the proceedings that led to this result were a judicial travesty."
Prisoners who may win release under the court's decision "will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym," he added.
Justice Samuel Alito said in his own dissent that the original estimate of how much the state would have had to reduce its inmate population by 46,000 prisoners is "the equivalent of three Army divisions."
The governor said the court's decision reinforces the need for the Legislature to approve his budget and the realignment plan it contains to shift thousands of nonviolent prison inmates to the custody of county jails.
"As we work to carry out the court's ruling, I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety," Brown said.
Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate told reporters that prison conditions have improved vastly since the court battles began and that the state has taken dramatic steps to cut the inmate population in recent years.
Those efforts included sending more than 10,000 inmates to prisons in other states, placing more than 30,000 nonviolent offenders on non-revocable parole and increasing the amount of time credited for good behavior that inmates can earn.
Today, the state's first medical parole hearing will take place at Corcoran State Prison under an effort to remove incapacitated and vegetative inmates from prisons to cut costs and overcrowding.
Even with those efforts, Cate said, the state "respects the order of the court and will comply."
Tax money key to plan
Much of the effort to comply would come from legislation Brown signed last month, Assembly Bill 109, to carry out the inmate shift.
But that happens only if the state provides sufficient money to local governments. Brown and legislative Democrats want to extend higher rates on vehicle and sales taxes to pay for it.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said the timing of the Supreme Court's decision was "very significant" because it comes just weeks before lawmakers are scheduled to vote on the state budget and Brown's revenue package.
"Either the court will do it or we have the opportunity to do it right," said Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat.
"One of the worst things we could do would be to give sheriffs and police chiefs and local communities this responsibility, which is coming by virtue of the Supreme Court decision, and not give them the resources to be able to do their jobs," he said.
By 2014-15, Brown's plan envisions the state will have diverted 40,984 inmates from state prisons to local jails. That includes "lower-level" offenders and those who currently must return to prison for several months after violating parole.
His proposal would shift about $955 million in state costs during 2011-12, as well as $611 million to $762 million annually in subsequent years. All would be funded by the tax extensions over five years.
Republicans, who oppose Brown's tax plan, criticized the court's decision. They say shifting inmates to local facilities could force an early release of dangerous individuals since many county jails are filled beyond capacity.
"People that go to the state prison system aren't there because they stole a pack of chewing gum," said Senate Republican Leader Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga. "There are some very serious people there."
KCRA: Big cuts in the prison - May 23, 2011