The Supreme Court today upheld a California court's mandate to reduce the state's prison population by some 32,000 inmates, saying deplorable conditions in overcrowded prisons are unconstitutional.
The 5-4 decision cited the Eight Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, mentioned a lack of inadequate medical care, soaring suicide rates and cells that resemble telephone-booth-sized cages without toilets.
After years of litigation, it became apparent that a remedy for the constitutional violations would not be effective absent a reduction in the prison system population, Kennedy wrote.
The vote followed the court's ideological fault lines, with four judges appointed by Democratic presidents joining Kennedy. Justice Antonin Scalia issued a scathing dissent that cast the decision as a menace to public safety, calling it perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history.
California's adult prisons, designed to have a capacity of about 80,000, currently contain more than 142,000 inmates, an increase spurred in part by harsh measures like the so-called three strikes law. The decision says the population cannot exceed 110,000.