The Supreme Court ruled in a long-standing case in California, ending an odyssey that has spanned two governors. They said today that the state is violating the Constitutional rights of prisoners by holding them in overcrowded lockups without adequate medical care. It upheld the ruling by a federal appeals court that California must release some of those prisoners.

In a decision closely watched by other states, the court by a 5-4 margin concluded the prison overcrowding violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Pointedly, the court rejected California’s bid for more time and leeway.

“The violations have persisted for years,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. “They remain uncorrected.”

The court agreed that a prisoner-release plan devised by a three-judge panel is necessary in order to alleviate the overcrowding. The court also upheld the two-year deadline imposed by the three-judge panel.

“For years, the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs,” Kennedy wrote.

Under the order, California must reduce the prison population to 137.5% of design capacity within two years. Under the current figures, that would mean that they would have to reduce the population by 37,000.

The conservative bloc all voted against this, with the more liberal bloc and Kennedy siding with the appeals court. Kennedy actually included in his ruling pictures of Mule Creek and Salinas Valley State Prisons, portraying the horrible conditions there.

For years California didn’t want to own up to the fact that they abused their own prisoners. On average, one prisoner died every week in California due to inadequate medical care. 160,000 prisoners were packed into jails built for 100,000 (the number is now down to around 147,000). Prisoners slept in common areas and gyms, on makeshift cots. The overcrowding severely restricted rehabilitation and treatment options, and as a result California has the highest incidence of recidivism in the nation. It also forced prison guards into extra duty and overtime work to manage volatile, overcrowded prisons, leading to front-page stories about overpaid corrections officers. But they weren’t really the problem. The overcrowding was.

1,000 laws have passed in California on sentencing over the last 30 years, and all of them increased sentences. A bid to create an independent sentencing commission to recommend reforms was blocked last year by ambitious Democrats wanting to be Attorney General someday. Kamala Harris, the new AG, has a very good smart on crime approach, but she isn’t in a policymaking position in that regard. Because the state ignored this problem for so long, instead of gradually changing their prison policies and reforming a broken system they will have to release a large number of inmates en masse. It’s their own damn fault for pretending they weren’t violating the rights of the prisoners.

Most likely this will result in transferring prisoners to local or county jails, rather than letting convicts out. What it should result in is a rethinking of the broken prison system in the state.