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A federal court refused Friday to excuse California prison officials from an order to reduce the inmate population by more than 30,000 to bring health care up to constitutional standards, but indicated it would extend a June 2013 deadline by up to six months.
The reduction was mandated in May 2011 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld lower-court rulings that overcrowding was the main cause of poor health care in the prison system.
A federal judge transferred control of inmate health care to a court-appointed receiver in 2006 after finding that substandard treatment, in prisons holding nearly twice their designed capacity, was killing an average of one prisoner per week.
On Aug. 1, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation asked a federal court in San Francisco to lift the population ceiling. The department said it can't meet the June 2013 deadline and shouldn't have to, because it can provide adequate health care to 118,000 inmates, 6,000 more than the maximum level ordered by the high court.
A three-judge panel rebuffed the state Friday, saying the population issue was argued and resolved in a court proceeding that began more than a decade ago.
Advising state officials to spend "available time and resources" improving prison conditions rather than litigating about them, the court said it would consider a request to extend the timetable until the end of 2013 if the department spells out its plans for reducing the inmate population.
The judges also renewed their previous order that department officials present plans to identify low-risk inmates who might be safely released before the end of their sentences. The department spurned that order in its Aug. 1 filing, arguing that the Supreme Court had not authorized the early release of any prisoners.
Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the department is reviewing the court's order.