WASHINGTON - A divided U.S. Supreme Court, citing "serious constitutional violations" in California's overcrowded prisons, upheld an order requiring the state to cut its inmate population by tens of thousands.

In a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, the justices said the order, the largest of its kind in U.S. history, was an appropriate step to remedy the inadequate level of medical and mental health care that prisoners were receiving.

That care "falls below the standard of decency that inheres in the Eighth Amendment," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, referring to the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. His opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

The original court order required California to cut its prison population by 46,000 within two years, and the state has begun taking steps to comply. It still must cut 32,000 more inmates from its rolls, said advocates for the inmates.

"This landmark decision not only will 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," said Donald Specter, the lawyer who argued the case, Brown v. Plata, for the inmates.

The ruling won't necessarily mean prisoners will be released. The state has been exploring other options, including channeling new parole offenders and low-level felons into county jails.

In April, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that would transfer tens of thousands of prisoners to local facilities. To reimburse the counties, he has proposed extending increases in the sales-tax and vehicle-license fees.

California's total prison population is now 163,000, with almost 10,000 of those inmates held out of state.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented, saying the majority "is gambling with the safety" of Californians.

"I fear that today's decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims," Alito wrote for himself and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also dissented. Writing for the pair, Scalia said the majority was affirming "what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history."

Kennedy said reductions could occur "in a manner calculated to avoid an undue negative effect on public safety."

He said overcrowding had already caused "needless suffering and death" in California's state's prisons, which had operated at 200 percent of design capacity for at least 11 years. Kennedy said that as many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet and that suicidal inmates had been held in cages the size of a telephone booth because of a shortage of treatment beds.

The court took the unusual step of attaching three photos to the majority opinion, including one depicting the holding cages. Kennedy wrote, "Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons."

Court Turns Down Detainees' Appeal

The Supreme Court turned down an appeal from Guantanamo detainees who fear they may be tortured or jailed if released from the U.S. naval base in Cuba.

It rejected a plea from dozens of detainees who say they should have 30 days' notice to challenge their transfer to countries where they have a reasonable fear of torture, or even continued confinement.

Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor voted to hear the appeal, two votes shy

of what was needed. Justice Elena Kagan sat out because she worked on the case as U.S. solicitor general.

The government says it has a policy not to send detainees anywhere they are likely to be tortured. Courts have ruled that the government's word is sufficient.

- Associated PressEndText

Read the justices' opinions in the California prison case via http://

go.philly.com/crowding

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