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Supreme Court orders California to free thousands from crowded prisons

An inmate at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove, Calif., in May. California is under a court order to reduce prison crowding by tens of thousands. Rich Pedroncelli / AP file

The U.S. Supreme Court refused Friday to let California delay the release of thousands of inmates from state prisons to relieve crowding.

In June, a lower court ordered California to release about 10,000 inmates — nearly 8 percent of all state prisoners — by the end of the year to improve to improve medical and mental health treatment. Gov. Jerry Brown last month asked the Supreme Court to delay the order, arguing that it would jeopardize public safety.

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, strongly dissented with the high court's 6-3 one-sentence order Friday, predicting a wave of murders and rapes in the streets of California. Justice Samuel Alito also disagreed but didn't join Scalia's dissent.

Brown also blasted the decision Friday, saying, "California must now release upon the public nearly 10,000 inmates convicted of serious crimes, about 1,000 for every city larger than Santa Ana."

California Gov. Jerry Brown, pictured at a news conference in Sacramento in January, called the Supreme Court's order dangerous Friday. Rich Pedroncelli / AP file

The legal issue was Brown's request for a stay of a ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for Northern California ordering the state to release about 9,600 inmates in the short term as part of larger proceedings requiring it to reduce its prison population by about 30,000.

The state argued that it had made "meaningful progress" by transferring thousands of "low-risk" inmates to county and local jails. Scalia and Alito agreed with that argument.

Mike Bien, a lawyer representing inmates in the case, told Capital Public Radio of Sacramento that the decision was significant because it appeared that Brown was gambling everything on his request for a stay.

"They raised all their arguments," he said. "They filed hundreds of pages of documents. They used specially hired Supreme Court counsel at over a thousand dollars an hour to raise these arguments."

Even though the ruling was issued without explanation, Scalia managed to find that it came "at the expense of intellectual bankruptcy," writing in a blistering dissent (.pdf) that it was "nothing more than a ceremonial washing of the hands — making it clear for all to see, that if the terrible things sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order do happen, they will be none of this Court's responsibility."

The state had already taken steps to start moving some inmates out of state, releasing more low-risk inmates and expanding parole programs — actions it said it was taking under protest.

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Pete Williams of NBC News contributed to this report from Washington.

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