California Institution for Men Aug. 7, 2006. Photo part of SCOTUS decision ordering California to reduce its prison population.

In a landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered California to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates, saying the system is so overcrowded that it violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in Monday’s 5-4 decision, said the California penal system failed to provide even minimal care for seriously ill prisoners, producing “needless suffering and death.”

“The violations have persisted for years,” Kennedy wrote. “They remain uncorrected.”

The ruling affirmed an order by a federal court in the case of Brown v. Plata, which noted that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.”

The federal court’s order requires California to reduce the prison population to 110,000, which still is 37.5 percent above the system’s capacity, according to The New York Times. In recent years the prison population has climbed as high as 160,000, and currently the system holds more than 140,000 inmates.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. filed dissents, with Scalia calling the lower court’s order “the most radical injunction” in our nation’s history. Alito said the majority is “gambling with the safety of the people of California.”

A California congressman agreed, telling the The Sacramento Bee that the ruling would “have a negative impact on the safety of the people of California.”

“This is not releasing the Vienna Boys Choir,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River.

In practice, however, the high court’s ruling will not have an immediate impact on how many prisoners remain in custody. California officials have two years to work out the details of reducing the prison population, and they might ask for more time, the Times reported. The newspaper noted that the reduction in prisoners could be achieved not just by releasing inmates early, but also by such steps as building new prisons, transferring prisoners out of state and using county jails.

“This is not a sudden court order requiring the prison doors to fly open,” Allen Hopper, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Bee.

The majority opinion included pictures of prisoners crammed into open gymnasium-style rooms and suicidal inmates placed in what Justice Kennedy described as “telephone-booth-sized cages without toilets.” Kennedy noted that California’s prison suicide rates have been 80 percent higher than the nationwide average.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the majority opinion with Kennedy.

“A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society,” Kennedy wrote.