SACRAMENTO (AP)—  A panel of federal judges won’t consider easing its order that California sharply reduce its prison population to improve inmate care, but may give state officials more time to comply, the three judges said Friday.

State prison officials have said they won’t be able to meet a court-ordered deadline to reduce the population of the state’s 33 adult prisons by about 33,000 inmates by June 2013. They argue that they could house another 3,000 inmates in those prisons while still bringing conditions up to constitutional standards for providing medical and mental health care.

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The judges wrote in a four-page order that they are not willing to reconsider the population cap order that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

“That question has already been litigated and decided by this Court and affirmed by the Supreme Court, and this Court is not inclined to permit re-litigation of the proper population cap at this time,” they wrote.

“It was a forceful rejection of the state’s position that they are entitled to modify the population cap,” said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Berkeley-based Prison Law Office. “Here’s my wish: that the state would stop playing games with the court and take the judgment of the U.S. Supreme Court seriously and abide by the law of the land.”

Corrections officials said they could not immediately comment.

The judges said they would consider extending the state’s deadline by six months, until December 2013. No further delay would be acceptable, they said, because the state already has said how it could meet the original standard without endangering public safety.

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“They have to prove that they can’t do it by June. That’s the next battle,” Specter said. “That’s going to be a hard burden for them to meet.”

In court filings on Aug. 17 and again earlier this week, state officials said they could elect to keep enough inmates in private prisons in other states to meet the population cap.

“Although this is a far-worse alternative than the contemplated modification of the final benchmark because it relocates inmates far from their communities, is expensive, and is unnecessary in light of the vast improvements Defendants have made to prison health care, it is nevertheless an available option,” state officials said in their filing on Tuesday.

The state already has sharply reduced its prison population under a law that took effect last year that shifts responsibility for less serious criminals to county jails. Prison officials say that will have moved more than 29,000 inmates to the local level by June 2013.

In their order, the judges also rejected a request from inmates’ attorneys to hold state officials in contempt of court. The state had previously ignored the judges’ Aug. 3 order to say how and when they could meet the court’s population cap by identifying inmates who are unlikely to commit new crimes or might otherwise be suitable for early release. The judges also told the state to submit other ways in which it could meet the June 2013 deadline.

“Defendants may not ignore an order from this Court, and they shall file a brief answering these questions on or before September 17, 2012,” the judges said.

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