The Supreme Court ordered California on Monday to release tens of thousands of its prisoners to relieve overcrowding, saying that “needless suffering and death” had resulted from putting too many inmates into facilities that cannot hold them in decent conditions.

It is one of the largest prison release orders in the nation’s history, and it sharply split the high court.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called the ruling “staggering” and “absurd.”

He said the high court had repeatedly overruled the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for ordering the release of individual prisoners. Now, he said, the majority were ordering the release of “46,000 happy-go-lucky felons.” He added that “terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order.” Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with him.

Justice Kennedy said the judges in California overseeing the prison-release order should “accord the state considerable latitude to find mechanisms and make plans” that are “consistent with the public safety.”

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