The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California must remove tens of thousands of inmates from its prison rolls in the next two years, and state officials vowed to comply, saying they hoped to do so without setting any criminals free.
Administration officials expressed confidence that their plan to shift low-level offenders to county jails and other facilities, already approved by lawmakers, would ease the persistent crowding that the high court said Monday had caused "needless suffering and death" and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
Gov. Jerry Brown's transfer plan "would solve quite a bit" of the overcrowding problem, though not as quickly as the court wants, said Matthew Cate, secretary of California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "Our goal is to not release inmates at all."
But the governor's plan would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, to be paid for with tax hikes that could prove politically impossible to implement. And at present, Brown's plan is the only one on the table.
The governor issued a muted statement calling for enactment of his program and promising, "I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety."
The court gave the state two years to shrink the number of prisoners by more than 33,000 and two weeks to submit a schedule for achieving that goal. The state now has 143,335 inmates, according to Cate.
Monday's 5-4 ruling, upholding one of the largest such orders in the nation's history, came with vivid descriptions of indecent care from the majority and outraged warnings of a "grim roster of victims" from some in the minority.
In presenting the decision, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a Sacramento native, spoke from the bench about suicidal prisoners being held in "telephone booth-sized cages without toilets" and others, sick with cancer or in severe pain, who died before being seen by a doctor. As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, and as many as 54 may share a single toilet, he said.
Kennedy, whose opinion was joined by his four liberal colleagues, said the state's prisons were built to hold 80,000 inmates, but were crowded with as many 156,000 a few years ago.
He cited a former Texas prison director who toured California lockups and described the conditions as "appalling," "inhumane" and unlike any he had seen "in more than 35 years of prison work."
The court's four conservatives accused their colleagues of "gambling with the safety of the people of California," in the words of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. "I fear that today's decision will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong. In a few years, we will see," he said.
Justice Antonin Scalia, delivering his own dissent in the courtroom, said the majority had affirmed "what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history." He added, "terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order." Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas also dissented.
Law enforcement officials in California concurred and said that trying to squeeze more inmates into already overcrowded county systems would force some early releases.
"Citizens will pay a real price as crime victims, as thousands of convicted felons will be on the streets with minimal supervision," Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in a statement. "Many of these 'early release' prisoners will commit crimes which would never have occurred had they remained in custody."
"It's an undue burden …to deal with the state's problems," said Jerry Gutierrez, chief deputy of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.
Republican lawmakers said they would continue to fight the governor's plan and its reliance on tax increases. Democrats "are looking for any excuse they can to try to have more taxes," said the leader of the state Senate's GOP minority, Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga.
Dutton said state officials should instead fast-track construction of new prisons and pressure the federal government to take custody of thousands of illegal immigrant felons housed in the state system.
Administration officials said their plan would keep the public safe by moving offenders into county lockups, drug treatment programs and other types of criminal supervision. But Cate said the Brown administration "cannot act alone" and conceded that release of some prisoners remains a possibility.
He urged the Legislature to immediately fund Brown's $302-million plan, which would shift 32,500 inmates to county jurisdiction by mid-2013. Among those identified for the program are tens of thousands of parole violators sent to costly state prisons every year to serve 90 days or less.
Monday's ruling arose from a pair of prison class-action lawsuits, one going back 20 years, which accused the state of failing to provide decent care for prisoners who were mentally ill or in need of medical care. The two suits were combined by a panel of three judges, all of whom were veterans with a liberal reputation.
U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson from San Francisco and Lawrence Karlton from Sacramento were joined by 9th Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt from Los Angeles. Since overcrowding was the "primary cause" of the substandard care meted out to inmates, they ordered the state to reduce its prison population by 38,000 to 46,000 persons.
Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-Atty. Gen. Brown appealed, believing a more conservative Supreme Court would be wary of telling a state how to run its prisons.
Since the earlier court order, the state has transferred about 9,000 state inmates to county jails. According to recent figures, the total prison population is about 33,000 more than the limit of 110,000 set by the three-judge panel. Kennedy said state officials can decide how to reduce the number of inmates.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the court "has done the right thing" by addressing the "egregious and extreme overcrowding in California's prisons."
Donald Specter, the lawyer for the nonprofit Prison Law Office who represented the inmates, said "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."
Others agreed with the dissenters. "What is the message for law-abiding people in California? Buy a gun. Get a dog. Put in an alarm system. Even seriously consider bars on the windows," said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, writing on his "Crime & Consequences" blog.
Meanwhile, the court took no action Monday on another California case, a challenge to the state's policy of granting in-state tuition at its colleges and universities to students who are illegal immigrants and have graduated from its high schools.
The justices said they would consider the appeal in a later private conference.
Times staff writer Anthony York contributed to this report.