LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A panel of federal judges ordered California on Thursday to ease overcrowding in state prisons by reducing the number of inmates by about 10,000 this year, and criticized what they described as foot-dragging in dealing with the matter.
California has been under court orders to reduce the population in its 33-prison system since 2009, when the same three-judge panel ordered it to relieve overcrowding that has caused inadequate medical and mental healthcare.
Earlier this year, the judges rebuffed a request by California Governor Jerry Brown to vacate the 2009 order that had argued that the state had fixed the crowding problem and that further prisoner releases would harm public safety.
The judges said if current efforts to reduce overcrowding does not result in the state reaching a prison population target of 137.5 percent of capacity by the end of the year, the state must then release prisoners from a list of inmates at low-risk of recidivism.
"Failure to take such steps or to report on such steps every two weeks shall constitute an act of contempt," the judges said in their ruling.
Don Specter, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, said the ruling would mean cutting the prison population to around 109,000 inmates from about 119,000 currently.
"The ruling is absolutely essential in order for prisoners to be safe and to get adequate healthcare," Specter said.
Brown, a Democrat, said in a statement that the state would seek an immediate stay of what he termed an "unprecedented order to release almost 10,000 inmates by the end of this year."
A spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation declined to provide immediate comment.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Richard Chang)
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