Washington (CNN) -- Few doubt the prison conditions across California are disturbing and long-standing:
A system housing twice as many inmates as the current facilities were designed for. Prisoners stacked three deep in 6- by 9-foot cells supposed to hold only one. Open spaces meant to be gymnasiums and clinics now transformed into crowded encampments with bunks and unsanitary conditions. Suicides occurring once every eight days on average.
Two decades of legislative and judicial efforts to alleviate the dangerous situation have now reached the Supreme Court, and a majority of justices seemed poised to affirm an existing order for the state to take a drastic steps -- including releasing inmates to ease overcrowding. Justice Stephen Breyer called the jail conditions "pretty horrendous."
A lively oral argument Tuesday was a classic battle over state versus federal authority, focusing on whether U.S courts can step in and essentially run state prisons when officials have repeatedly violated basic constitutional guarantees afforded inmates. Public safety concerns clashed in court with individual rights, and questions of how the three branches of government should balance competing state interests.
"One case is pending for 20 years," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "And no change. So how much longer do we have to wait? Another 20 years?"
"If I were a citizen of California, I would be concerned about the release of 40,000 prisoners," said Justice Samuel Alito. He said other states that had similar prison release orders saw a spike "in the number of murders, the number of rapes, the number of armed robberies, the number of assaults -- that's not going to happen in California?" he asked the lawyer for the inmates suing for better conditions.
Prison overcrowding is a nationwide problem, but California's dilemma is unique in its massive scope and time frame.
Currently about 147,000 men and women are incarcerated in the nation's largest prison system. The state has argued it has reduced the prison population to meet overcrowding concerns, but a special federal court panel had ordered 36,000 to 46,000 more inmates released quickly, or about a quarter of the total.
Despite some recent drops, the prison population in the state has increased by about 75 percent in the past two decades.
Two lawsuits -- one filed in 1990, the other in 2001 -- say overcrowding is the core cause of what has become a domino effect of unsafe and unhealthy conditions for those on both sides of the iron bars.
State legislators and corrections officials have admitted the prisons violate the ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" contained in the Constitution, and have organized more than 20 panels and commissions to address the crisis.
Outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has blamed the legislature for not approving more money to build new prisons, or reforming the way defendants are punished and sentenced, particular repeat offenders.
"I don't blame the courts for stepping in to try to solve the overcrowding crisis," he said three years ago. "The fact of the matter is, for decades the state of California hasn't really taken it seriously and hasn't really done something about it."
The federal court had ordered the state to shrink the prison population from the current 200 percent over capacity to a maximum of 137.5 percent, and to accomplish that in two years. The state was given wide latitude to meet the goal, but the court was adamant the state do it without delay and without excuse.
The task was made more difficult by the state budget crisis and a national economic downturn that has created turmoil over funding solutions not just in prisons, but also in education, transportation, and social programs.
In oral arguments, the attorney for California, Carter Phillips, said the federal intervention in a traditional state function in this case was "extreme and unprecedented" and "extraordinarily premature," suggesting the current crisis does not warrant such action.
That produced a barrage of skeptical comments from the bench.
Given the current budget crisis California, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wondered how the state would address the problem without first considering prisoner releases and a change in the sentencing protocols, which some legal experts have characterized as overly harsh.
"I don't see how you wait for an option that doesn't exist," said Sotomayor. "They talked about hiring more staff, but the conclusion was that even if you maximize the staff, you don't have the facilities to add more staff, which is what you need to cure the constitutional violation." She said whatever small progress the state could claim was offset by the ever-increasing prison population.
"The problem is that at some point the court has to say: You have been given enough time; the constitutional violation still persists, as the state itself acknowledges," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who may prove the deciding vote in what appears to be a division along traditional conservative-liberal lines. "Overcrowding is the principal cause, as experts have testified, and it's now time for a remedy. The court has to, at some point, focus on the remedy and that's what it did, and that, it seems to me, was a perfectly reasonable decision."
Breyer called the overcrowding a "big human rights problem."
Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts tried to move the debate beyond the inmates, to the effects any sudden prison release would have on citizens at large. The federal Prisoner Litigation Reform Act requires courts to give substantial weight to adverse impact on public safety when ruling on such disputes. That 1996 law generally limits prison reform efforts to only the most serious and pressing cases.
"The state is saying it cannot meet the 137.5 [percent mandate] in two years without an adverse impact on public safety," Roberts said.
The inmates' attorney, Donald Specter, said the lower court was confident the state could meet its deadline obligations.
"What do you mean they can do it? Of course they could do it safely if they built, you know, umpteen new prisons," said Justice Antonin Scalia, who was unusually restrained during the debate. "You know, that's pie in the sky, that's not going to happen," given current budget and time constraints.
Alito pushed Specter to admit a 70 percent recidivism rate exists for released inmates. But the lawyer added the crime recurrence rate for "low-risk" prisoners is only 17 percent.
"One of the things that concerns me about this type of institutional reform litigation is that the state is responsible for a lot of different things." said Roberts, pivoting the argument. "What happens when you have this case, another district court ordering the state to take action with respect to environmental damage, another court saying you have got to spend this much more on education for disabled, another court saying you have got to spend this much more on something else? How does the state sort out its obligations?"
He suggested the state deserves some discretion to sort out such competing priorities, especially without resorting to transferring such decisions from the legislature to the courts.
The case is Schwarzenegger v. Plata (09-1233). A ruling is expected in the spring.