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Inmates at California's Chino State Prison in December 2010.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected California's appeal of a lower-court order that could force the state to release thousands of California prison inmates before they complete their sentences.
The justices did not comment on their order, which leaves in place the earlier ruling by a panel of three federal judges requiring California to reduce its prison population by an additional 9,600 inmates to improve conditions.
California Gov. Jerry Brown has argued that the state cannot meet that goal without releasing dangerous felons and jeopardizing public safety.
In 2011, the justices ruled that the three judges on the lower court had the authority to order California to reduce inmate overcrowding as the key condition for improving prison medical care.
"They already lost once and the Supreme Court said you don't get a second bite at the apple," Michael Bien, one of the attorneys representing inmates, said of Tuesday's decision. "Hopefully it's the signal to all the parties that it's time to comply with the three-judge court's orders and move on with the reforms that are necessary, rather than resisting."
The decision comes as state officials are in settlement talks with attorneys representing inmates.
At the heart of the case is a 2001 lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates who claimed medical treatment in the prisons was so poor it was leading to a death a week through neglect or malpractice.
The federal courts agreed, saying conditions were so bad that they violated inmates' constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment.