SACRAMENTO (AP) — Federal judges have ordered California to speed up its process for releasing some nonviolent inmates as part of a previous order forcing the state to sharply reduce its prison population.

The three-judge panel on Friday gave the state a Jan. 1 deadline to start considering parole for nonviolent second-strike inmates.

The state is required to forward the names of inmates who meet the criteria to the parole board once they have served half their prison sentences.

In February, the judges ordered California to take that step as one of many designed to cut the prison population and improve conditions for inmates, but attorneys representing inmates said the state was taking too long to set up the parole process. The federal panel agreed, writing that “the record contains no evidence that defendants cannot implement the required parole process by that date, 11 months after they agreed to do so ‘promptly.'”

The state will comply with the deadline, corrections department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said.

California has reduced its prison population by about 25,000 inmates, primarily through a law that sends lower-level offenders to county jails instead of state prisons, but the drop has leveled off. It also has spent billions of dollars on new medical facilities and staff, including opening an $839 million prison medical facility in Stockton last fall.

In 2013, the most recent state records show, there were more than 14,000 inmates in prison for nonviolent second-strike crimes, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Officials are releasing each month about 500 such repeat offenders an average of six weeks early.

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)