updated 2/9/2009 9:32:19 PM ET 2009-02-10T02:32:19

A special panel of federal judges tentatively ruled Monday that California must release tens of thousands of inmates to relieve overcrowding.

The judges said no other solution will improve conditions so poor that inmates die regularly of suicides or lack of proper care.

The panel said it wanted the state to present a plan to trim the population in two to three years.

“There are simply too many prisoners for the existing capacity,” they wrote. “Evidence offered at trial was overwhelmingly to the effect that overcrowding is the primary cause of the unconstitutional conditions that have been found to exist in the California prisons.”

The three judges suggested a target prison population of between 100,800 and 121,000 inmates — down from the current level of about 158,000. More inmates live in conservation camps, community correctional facilities and private prisons in other states.

The proposed targets would require the state to reduce the prison population by between 36,200 and 57,000 inmates. Attorneys representing inmates had sought a reduction of about 52,000 inmates.

The state can change parole and other policies to cut the population of its 33 adult prisons without endangering the public, the judges said.

Reducing the number of inmates might have a positive effect as well, they said. “This is particularly true considering that California’s overcrowded prison system is itself ... a public safety hazard,” the panel said in its order.

Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the administration is reviewing the order. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office referred reporters to Cate for comment.

“Obviously, the Governor and I strongly disagree with the panel’s conclusions and our response will be based on how best protect the public from a court-ordered release of inmates,” Cate said in a statement.

The administration previously said it would appeal any inmate release order to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The three federal judges said a final population figure would be set later and they may hold more hearings before making their decision final.

After hearing closing arguments in the case last week, the judges said they wanted to quickly issue a tentative ruling in hopes of forcing the state to take steps on its own or reach a settlement with attorneys representing inmates.

In Monday’s order, they offered the services of a court-appointed referee for settlement talks. Previous negotiations failed, forcing the trial that started in November.

The order comes as California struggles to bridge a $42 billion budget deficit that is forcing the state to furlough its employees two days each month.

An expert panel convened by California corrections officials has projected the state could save $803 million to $906 million annually if parolees were not sent back as easily for technical violations and if convicts could more easily earn early release credits by taking classes and vocational programs.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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