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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that California must drastically reduce its prison population to relieve severe overcrowding that has exposed inmates to increased violence, disease and death.

The decision, however, doesn't mean the prison gates will swing open in an uncontrolled release.

The high court's 5-4 decision calls on the state to cut the population to no more than 110,000 inmates. To get there, state officials have two years to either transfer some 33,000 inmates to other jails or release them.

California has already been preparing for the ruling, driven as much by persistent multibillion-dollar budget deficits as by fears for the well-being of prison inmates and employees. The state has sent inmates to other states. It plans to transfer jurisdiction over others to counties, though the state doesn't have the money to do it.

"They've made a lot of plans already,'' said Michael Bien, one of the attorneys who sought the ruling on behalf of mentally and physically ill inmates who suffered in severely crowded conditions. "We're sure it can be done safely and appropriately.

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